7 Reasons Why Obama's Speeches Are So Powerful
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The following has been updated since Obama delivered his speech to Congress.
What did we hear when President Barack Obama addressed a joint session of Congress?
The pundits will stress the nuts-and-bolts policy issues: the banking system, education, energy, health care. But beyond policy, there will be a vision of America -- a moral vision and a view of unity that the pundits often miss. What they miss is the Obama Code. For the sake of unity, the president tends to express his moral vision indirectly.
Like other self-aware and highly articulate speakers, he connects with his audience using what cognitive scientists call the "cognitive unconscious." Speaking naturally, he lets his deepest ideas simply structure what he is saying. If you follow him, the deep ideas are communicated unconsciously and automatically. The Obama Code is his most effective way to bring the country together around fundamental American values.
For supporters of the president, it is crucial to understand the Code in order to talk overtly about the old values our new president is communicating. It is necessary because tens of millions of Americans -- conservatives and progressives -- don't yet perceive the vital sea change that Obama is bringing about.
The word "code" can refer to a system of either communication or morality. Obama has integrated the two. The Obama Code is moral and linguistic at once. The president is using his enormous skills as a communicator to express a moral system. As he has said, budgets are moral documents. His economic program is tied to his moral system and is discussed in the Code, as are just about all of his other policies.
Behind the Obama Code are seven crucial intellectual moves that I believe are historically, practically and cognitively appropriate, as well as politically astute. They are not all obvious, and jointly they may seem mysterious. That is why it is worth sorting them out, one by one.
1. Values Over Programs
The first move is to distinguish programs from the value systems they represent. Every policy has a material aspect -- the nuts and bolts of how it works -- plus a typically implicit cognitive aspect that represents the values and ideas behind the nuts and bolts. The president knows the difference. He understands that those who see themselves as "progressive" or "conservative" all too often define those words in terms of programs rather than values. Even the programs championed by progressives may not fit what the president sees as the fundamental values of the country. He is seeking to align the programs of his administration with those values.
The potential pushback will come not just from conservatives who do not share his values, but just as much from progressives who make the mistake of thinking that programs are values and that progressivism is defined by a list of programs. When some of those programs are cut as economically secondary or as unessential, their defenders will inevitably see this as a conservative move rather than a move within an overall moral vision they share with the president.
This separation between values and programs lies behind the president's pledge to cut programs that don't serve those values and support those that do -- no matter whether they are proposed by Republicans or Democrats. The president's idealistic question is, what policies serve what values, not what political interests?
2. Progressive Values Are American Values
Obama's second intellectual move concerns what the fundamental American values are. In Moral Politics, I described what I found to be the implicit, often unconscious, value systems behind progressive and conservative thought.