Obama's Rhetoric: A 'Bear Hug' To Business? In recent public speeches, President Obama has increasingly used words like "investment" and "competitiveness." Linguist John McWhorter says the president's use of that terminology "gives the business world a kind of oral bear hug in some very rhetorically effective ways."
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Obama's Rhetoric: A 'Bear Hug' To Business?

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Obama's Rhetoric: A 'Bear Hug' To Business?

Obama's Rhetoric: A 'Bear Hug' To Business?

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The guy sometimes known as Mrs. Obama's husband has launched another sort of campaign. In recent weeks the president has been using words like "investment" and "competitiveness" quite a lot.

Columbia University Professor John McWhorter says this pro-business rhetoric is a little like speaking in code.

Professor JOHN MCWHORTER (Columbia University): Obama's language, when he's addressing businesspeople, of course uses some business metaphors, that's the easy part. But what's interesting is also he speaks to them in a very warm manner. What he does is he gives the business world a kind of oral bear hug in some very rhetorically effective ways.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to some of the president's speech from the Chamber of Commerce earlier this week. One of the things he said was this.

President BARACK OBAMA: Now, in addition to making government more affordable, we're also making it more effective and more consumer-friendly. We're trying to run the government a little bit more like you run your business - with better technology and faster services. So in the coming months, my administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America.

INSKEEP: Well, now, that's interesting. That's something that people commonly say about all of kinds of organizations. We're going to run it more like a business, but it's also friendly, like you say. He's basically complimenting businesspeople and saying I want to be more like you.

Prof. MCWHORTER: What's interesting about that statement is that he is implying that the government will change its ways to suit the preferences of business, as opposed to, for example, a rather similar speech in intent that Calvin Coolidge made in 1925. And this is the one where he made the famous quote: The chief business of the American people is business. And what's interesting is the complete difference in tone. In his speech, Obama used the words "we" and "us" 66 times. Coolidge, in his speech, used "we" and "us" just 28 times. And it's very...

INSKEEP: Wait, wait, wait. You're saying that Obama actually is more chummy with business, at least in his language in this particular speech, than Calvin Coolidge, one of the famously pro-business presidents in American history.

Prof. MCWHORTER: That is precisely what I'm saying.

INSKEEP: And you're saying that's different than, say, Franklin Roosevelt, to whom Obama was compared because of the terrible economic crisis in which he took office. And Roosevelt, I'm thinking of a speech in which Roosevelt said, Wall Street hates me and I welcome their hatred.

Prof. MCWHORTER: Exactly. And it's interesting, because since Franklin D. Roosevelt, one cannot be as saliently pro-business as Coolidge was. Obama has to be more coded. He could not say something like the chief business of the American people is business.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to some of the president from his State of the Union speech earlier this year, in which he also used terms that people noticed as seeming businesslike or pro-business.

President OBAMA: We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.

(Soundbite of applause)

President OBAMA: We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business.

Prof. MCWHORTER: It is a celebration of capitalism right there - and he's not going to put it in the blunt way that one would imagine a different kind of president putting it, but it follows naturally, therefore, that one wants to compete, one wants to be ahead.

INSKEEP: Is the president, to some extent, simply repackaging or restating ideas and policies and initiatives that he's had all along? He's just doing it in a somewhat different way and before different people.

Prof. MCWHORTER: Well, I think that it's not only that part. It's business in general, as opposed to what blue America might think of as cool business - say, for example, green technology and the like. What Obama is saying here is that making more money, creating wealth and investing it or leveraging it, as he often says in this speech, in order for America to get richer and richer, that that is a major imperative. And that...

INSKEEP: We don't also have to be helping global warming. Just making money is enough. That's what you're saying.

Prof. MCWHORTER: No, I wouldn't say that. I think that Obama is very interested in issues such as lessening global warming. But I think that in this speech he also feels it necessary to say that that's not the only kind of wealth that we can be interested in. We in America can be interested in business for its own sake, because - and I think he's implying - that's what America's always been good at, that's what America is all about. He's not going to say it that way, but I think that that's what our Democrat president means.

INSKEEP: John McWhorter is the author of "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English." Thanks very much.

Prof. MCWHORTER: Thank you very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: And you hear him right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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