Obama's Health Care Speech

In his weekly New York Times column yesterday, Frank Rich called Barack Obama's health care speech to a joint session of Congress last Wednesday, "inspired, lucid and, in the literally and figuratively Kennedyesque finale, moving."

Mr. Rich was referring to two Kennedys, Ted and John; the latter was the figurative reference and the former the literal. Obama quoted directly from a letter Ted had written to him just before he died:

He expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform⎯"that great unfinished business of our society," he called it⎯would finally pass. He repeated the truth that health care is decisive for our future prosperity, but he also reminded me that "it concerns more than material things."
"What we face," he wrote, "is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country."

Obama then plucked that last phrase, "the character of our country," and proceeded to expand upon it in his objective to overcome the controversy that has divided our country over health care reform. Invoking the spirit of Ted Kennedy's lifelong efforts on the issue, Obama appealed to the Republicans and Democrats in the Joint Session, and to the millions of American citizens watching the prime time broadcast, to put aside their differences and come together on an efficient and fair system of health care.

The figurative reference to John F. Kennedy came in Obama's finale. JFK's most memorable words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," represent a rhetorical technique called antithesis, or a figure of balance in which two contrasting ideas are juxtaposed in adjacent phrases, clauses, or sentences. Here's how Obama employed antithesis:

We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it.

And then Obama turned to one of his own favorite rhetorical devices, anaphora, or the repetitive use of a key phrase. (For a fuller discussion of antithesis and anaphora, please see my earlier blog about his Inaugural Address.)

I still believe that we can act when it's hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress. I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history's test.

Because that's who we are. That is our calling. That is our character. Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

My next blog will have another example of Obama's use of repetitive phrases in another speech about health care that he gave three days after his address to Congress.