Words are not enough

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 29, 2013

US President Barack Obama’s second term has officially begun and those whose job it is to read the runes or recall history or parse the Republican party’s current predilections, prophesy four more years of… nothing special.

The President, only the 17th in American history to win a second term, is being described as alternately freed — and harried — by the knowledge that his clock is ticking, that he will never run for re-election again and will be a lame duck in just two years. His inaugural speech is being picked over for being too confrontational towards the right-wing, too geared to legacy, too much about vision and too little about the way to get there. In other words, everyone thrilled to the rhetorical might of an address that quoted the American Declaration of Independence, and repeated the opening words of the preamble to the US Constitution, ‘We the people’. But hardly anyone believes he can bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality.

Pessimism has been an extraordinarily pervasive feature of the countdown to Obama’s second inauguration. In a dismal preview, Robert W Merry, whose recent book Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians examines how presidents are evaluated, suggested, “It’s almost impossible to find a president who had a second term better than his first.” That was tepid expectation at best, going by the generally doubtful analysis of Obama’s first term (despite signal achievements such as legislation on universal healthcare and equal pay for women; ending the Iraq engagement; finding Osama bin Laden).

Just days before the president’s inauguration, Yale economist Robert Shiller argued that Obama badly needed a new metaphor, a simple successful formulation “around which support for his policies might crystallise, thereby boosting his administration’s political effectiveness”. The professor’s syndicated column was carried by publications around the world. It probably powerfully impressed many with the rather doleful comparison he made between what he called Obama’s “dead metaphors” and the living, breathing one embraced by an earlier president who led the American people through hard times. “…in the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt used a metaphor that remains very much alive today,” writes Shiller, in reference to the ‘new deal’.

By implication, Obama will have failed or started down the road to certain failure in his second term if he is not able to trump, or at least equal Roosevelt’s masterly metaphor. No one can deny that metaphors have embodied — and driven forward — the vision of many remarkable political leaders (Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton for example) and been the making of many malevolent ones (Hitler, Enoch Powell). For, metaphors are more than word paintings. As Jonathan Charteris-Black argues in his eponymous work The Persuasive Power of Metaphor, they can be used to good effect as a bridge between the familiar and the literal, transferring meaning from what is easily understood to more complex concepts.

But the problem with the premise that Obama badly needs a good metaphor is its starting point, namely a superb metaphor will neatly substitute for a superb idea. In his seminal essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell argued that “the sole aim of metaphor is to call up a visual image”. Now it seems the burden on the metaphor for Obama’s second term is much greater; it must be a mind-bender, even a call to action. From metaphor to idea is a treacherous sequence. It needs to be the other way around and it could be argued that Obama has begun his second term with exactly that.

Consider these five fragments from his inaugural speech:

* We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths —that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still

* For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it

* We have always understood that when times change, so must we…that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action

* Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people

* We are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together

Repeated use of the word “we” and the phrase “we, the people” is complemented by the emphasis on “collective action”, doing things “together”, seizing the moment “together”.

It recalled his re-election victory speech back in November, when he ended the protracted and ugly fight for the White House with the lyrical message: “We are not as divided as our politics suggest, we’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.”

Clearly, if Obama is to have a metaphor it will surely emerge from that simply worded, strongly inclusive vision for a divided country, beset by legislative gridlock and political paralysis, and where this Democrat president must share his power with Congress, and bow before the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Though Roosevelt’s New Deal was not an original construct — it was borrowed from a 1932 book of the same name — it had newness and force as a political metaphor for change that could fix America’s ailing economy. Obama’s metaphor, when and if it comes, might be less original still — drawn from the opening words of the Constitution’s preamble, which was written in 1787. But it has tremendous force for all that.

Rashmee Roshan Lall is a senior journalist based in the US. The views expressed by the author are personal.