On the Tone and Structure of the Obama Jobs Speech

1) In his appraisal, the Atlantic's Chris Good said that the speech's refrain -- pass this jobs bill; you should pass it right away --  amounted to a kind of begging to Congress. That may be the President's real situation. But I thought that as a specimen of rhetoric, his approach in the speech was quite effective.

In style and structure the constant refrain provided the "music" of the speech. Do you wonder what point the President is trying to get across? Well, in case you've forgotten, every thirty seconds he will remind you: Pass this jobs bill; you should pass it right away.

It's an approach familiar from religious speeches and sermons, and tent-revival orations. When done right, the recurrent refrain seems not repetitive and boring but rather cumulatively engaging: the audience knows where the speaker is going, anticipates the connections he is going to make, and sees how the parts fit together. Most listeners will not know about the theory of rhyme schemes or the structure of refrains in poetry. But we all recognize these patterns when we hear them. Recall how, in a more innocent age, Obama used Yes we can as a stylized connective refrain. After the jump is a passage where I thought the refrain worked well as a thematic device (and was delivered well).

On both politics and substance, the President positioned himself in the only tenable way for the next months' deliberations with the Congress and next year's election campaign. Instead of asking vaguely for "consensus" or seeming resentfully resigned to the dysfunction of politics, he's made his case and said clearly and confidently what he is for. That is a big improvement from the passive-defeatist tone and reality of the debt-ceiling era.

2) On the merits, the part of the speech I was happiest to hear him emphasize -- by which I mean, not just the part that accords most with my own understanding of U.S. economic history but also the area where his policy most clearly differs from the opposition's -- is this:

>>This larger notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everyone's money, let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they're on their own - that's not who we are. That's not the story of America.

Yes, we are rugged individualists. Yes, we are strong and self-reliant. And it has been the drive and initiative of our workers and entrepreneurs that has made this economy the engine and envy of the world.

But there has always been another thread running throughout our history - a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.

We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union. But in the middle of a Civil War, he was also a leader who looked to the future - a Republican president who mobilized government to build the transcontinental railroad; launch the National Academy of Sciences; and set up the first land grant colleges. And leaders of both parties have followed the example he set.

Ask yourselves - where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways and our bridges; our dams and our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather had the opportunity to go to school because of the GI Bill. Where would we be if they [JF - and my uncles and father] hadn't had that chance?

How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip? What kind of country would this be if this Chamber had voted down Social Security or Medicare just because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do? How many Americans would have suffered as a result?

No single individual built America on their own. We built it together. We have been, and always will be, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; a nation with responsibilities to ourselves and with responsibilities to one another. Members of Congress, it is time for us to meet our responsibilities.<<

This argument may not prevail this year with the Congress or next year with the electorate, but in my opinion it is exactly the right place for the President and the Administration to make their stand. If he goes down, at least he will have gone down trying to defend the right ground.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In