Over the course of our country’s history, there have been a small number of speeches that have become legendary, known for their eloquence, their content, and their delivery. What makes a speech deserving of this? Does it require the country to be going through a tragedy? Or does it rely solely on the crowd’s adoration of the speaker?
While it sounds bad to say, I think one main component of a successful speech is the chaos or worry in the minds of the civilians. In dark times, civilians look to the President to inspire them with their words and reassure them with their plans. For example, arguably one of the most well known speeches in our history, the Gettysburg Address, took place during a time of intense tragedy and insecurity, so when Lincoln declared,“we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” he provided them with the comfort, motivation, and a purpose. But does this apply to State of the Union speeches as well? Or do people just want to hear how much we as a nation have grown?
The 2014 State of the Union started off positive, naming not only the large-scale growth, but the individual, seemingly miniature accomplishments we have achieved. He uses this growth to inspire continued prosperity, saying “That’s why I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America. After five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth.” He fills his audience with pride and confidence, also reminding us of the success of his own term in office. He even asks the people one central question, are we going to help or hinder this progress? He then begins reminding the people of why we need to help, playing into the same motivational tactic as our historic speakers, mentioning the shutting down of the government. Back in 1863 when Lincoln gave his famous speech, the country was going through an intense division, with little to no middle ground or willingness to compromise, which genuinely did “[test] whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” We as a nation seem to be headed in a similar direction, and the speech given on Monday night our President inspired us not through the negatives of this way of thinking, but instead by threatening our pride which he had just built up: “then we are not doing right by the American people.” This tactic continues throughout the speech, raising our pride by praising our growth, and then threatening it if action is not taken or compromises made.
Another element which makes the Gettysburg Address stay so fresh in our minds is its brevity, being less that 300 words in length. While this worked elegantly and served its purpose, it would not have applied nearly as well to a SOTU address. Lincoln was only addressing a single topic, and thus was able to isolate and simplify. In a State of the Union, however, there is an incredible range of topics to be covered, from climate change, unemployment, financial security, health care, etc.) and thus would be very incomplete if they tried to be so short. Instead, our 44th President was as straightforward and succinct as possible, not boring the audience while still covering the necessary topics.
President Obama’s speech, given on January 28, 2014 was very well performed, motivating it’s audience into action to “get it done” while acknowledging the growth that has already taken place. While he as a speaker was not as iconic as Lincoln, and did not rise up as a beacon of hope in the dark times like some heroes have done, he maintained constant in his beliefs, provided plans of attack, and addressed the citizens of the United States of America in a way so as to inspire and motivate.
“The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln.” The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln Online, 2013. Web. 30 Jan. 2014.
“FULL TRANSCRIPT: Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 29 Jan. 2014.