US President Barack Obama is among the greatest orators of his generation, yet he rarely uses classical rhetorical devices. That he began his recent speech to the United Auto Workers Conference on 28 February by using the rhetorical device of anaphora – or repetition of a word or phrase at the start of a sentence – was worth taking note of.
“It’s unions like yours that fought for jobs and opportunity for generations of American workers. It’s unions like yours that helped build the arsenal of democracy that defeated fascism and won World War II. It’s unions like yours that forged the American middle class — that great engine of prosperity, the greatest that the world has ever known.”
Why did he use such a classic device, and in such a prominent place in the speech, right up front?
Making the sound bite stick
The first reason that Obama used the anaphora is to introduce his big sound bite – “It’s unions like yours that forged the American middle class.”
This is the sound bite he is aiming for from the speech. And because it’s placed as the final repetition of three – he is giving it the best chance to be remembered and repeated. Unions are meant to be blue collar but Obama has them in the good seats, with the middle class. As he later says of the jobs saved by bailing out GM and Chrysler: “These jobs are worth more than just a paycheck. They’re a source of pride. They’re a ticket to a middle-class life that make it possible for you to own a home and raise kids and maybe send them — yes — to college.”
Being middle class represents the American dream for blue collar machinists, the apotheosis of which is — yes – sending the kids to college. This is the dream and that Obama encapsulates in that sound bite: “It’s unions like yours that forged the American middle class.” This is the dream that Obama is offering his core voters. This is his election pitch.
Don’t mention the Unions
But there is another reason for the use of the anaphora at the start of the speech. The clue is that he does not use the word “union” again until the very end of the speech. So even though he starts off like this is a speech about unions, it is not. The anaphora makes the word stick in the mind of his audience, but, in fact, the speech goes somewhere very different. It is a brilliant development of the word “work”, playing on its different meanings and connotations, in a bid to support his push for re-election.
America is Working
Of course “worker” is the word that allows Obama to avoid using the more politically charged term “union”, as in: “You gave up some of your rights as workers. Promises were made to you over the years that you gave up for the sake and survival of this industry — its workers, their families. You want to talk about sacrifice? You made sacrifices.”
And at other times he uses to simply mean labor:
“Building cars is tough work.”
“In my hometown at Ford’s Chicago Assembly where workers are building a new Explorer and selling it to dozens of countries around the world.”
But then he adds connotations and layers of meaning. He takes the positive values of work and workers to align them with what he calls the “American story”: “America has the best workers in the world. When the playing field is level, nobody will beat us,” going on to say, “The values that made this country great: hard work and fair play, the chance to make it if you really try”.
He equates for his audience “work” with what makes America great. Moreover, “work” is what holds societies and generations together; it is a mythical essence: “How many of you who’ve worked the assembly line had a father or a grandfather or a mother who worked on that same line? How many of you have sons and daughters who said, you know, Mom, Dad, I’d like to work at the plant, too? As he builds up the layers of meaning around “work” and “worker” he creates a sort of halo around these words in the speech: “work” is America’s “mojo”, its secret to success.
Almost literally so – as Obama describes UAW member who won the lottery: “He used some of his winnings to buy his wife the car that he builds because he’s really proud of his work.” The worker as lottery winner! And what does he do his money: he spends it on his “work”.
But of course the ultimate vocation for the worker in election year is as voter. So when Obama says of the bail out of GM and Chrysler, “I placed my bet on the American worker”, there is also a sense that he is betting his Presidency on the “American worker” too. Why else does he end the speech by saying: “God bless you. God bless the work you do”?
To read the full text of President Obama’s speech to the UAW Conference, visit VoiceGig.