Obama's gay marriage statement

First aired on Day 6 (11/05/12)

obama-marriage-150.jpgSince U.S. President Barack Obama announced his personal support for same sex marriage last week, which made him the first president to publicly do so, political analysts and pundits have been feverishly speculating on how this could affect his re-election ambitions in November.

Journalist Sam Leith, however, hasn't been interested in what Obama actually said, but how he said it. In his new book Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama, Leith explores and unpacks the techniques of political argument. He appeared on Day 6 recently to discuss Obama's recent rhetoric about gay marriage.

Here is a quotation from Obama's interview with ABC News:

"I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together; when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that 'don't ask, don't tell' is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married."

Leith said Obama's statement employs a common rhetorical position by suggesting that history is on his side.

"The position he's now taking is kind of a ... surrendering to the inevitable, if you like, and he goes on to talk about his children and [how] it's not an issue for them. There's sort of two things going on there, I think. One of them is this business that our children are showing us the way kind of thing, which is always kind of rhetorically effective, but the other one is that it personalizes it. You did notice that he said 'me personally,' and this is where he's being quite careful. This is a personal statement rather than a presidential one."

While some political columnists and personalities believe Obama's endorsement of same sex marriage will ignite the more conservative communities in America, others think that because he made this a personal statement, it won't hurt his chances in the upcoming election.

But what kind of rhetorical techniques will the president have to use to earn a second term in the White House? When Obama got elected in 2008, the relative newcomer to Washington rode a tidal wave of optimism, and his rhetoric was all about looking towards the future. Now he's on the other side of the coin. 

Words-Like-Loaded-Pistols-125.jpg"If you're the incumbent, generally you're defending your record, which is tricky to do. You shift things away from what you failed to do in the past to what you're going to do in the future. And obviously, if you're not the incumbent, you've got nothing but future, so you just go to town on that. Mitt Romney's all about tomorrow and 'a new America begins today' or whatever his line is." [It's actually "a better America begins tonight."]

And whereas Obama's impressive oratory skills and cool charisma were major assets in the last election, Leith believes they will be less effective in the current campaign. His record has received mixed reviews, and he's largely failed to live up to the mammoth expectations of him when he won the presidency. His calm and measured approach was an attractive characteristic in a public figure following a "period of great upheaval and turmoil" in U.S. politics, but this time around it could seem not emotional enough. 
"But now, in a time of talk radio and the Rush Limbaughs of the world are kind of whipping this anger and frustration -- 'Main street's hurting' -- he looks professorial, he looks elite, he looks too calm, you know."