Obama Speech on Health Care Reform: Get Specific, Return to Campaign Eloquence, Call on American Values, Says Baylor Presidential Rhetoric Expert

Sept. 9, 2009

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The stakes are high for President Obama's speech on health care reform, not only for the future of health care in the U.S., but for Obama's domestic agenda at large, says a Baylor University political science professor and expert on presidential rhetoric.

The president will address a joint session of Congress and the American people tonight at 7 p.m. CT.

For Obama to "win" the health care debate, he will need to convince the American people that his plan is better than the status quo, says Dr. Martin J. Medhurst, professor of political science and Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric and Communication at Baylor. The problem is, Medhurst says, there is no Obama plan at the moment, only broad principles that he has instructed his supporters in Congress to follow.

Medhurst says Obama must do three things in his address to the nation:

    Be specific. "The president must set forth with more specificity precisely what he wants the plan to look like. This will mean picking and choosing from among the various plans currently in circulation and identifying those elements that are non-negotiable," Medhurst says.

    Return to campaign eloquence. "The president must explain why his plan is better than the status quo, and this involves explaining what will happen if we do nothing," Medhurst says. "Here, Obama must return to his campaign eloquence by painting a picture of a bleak future in which ordinary Americans who currently have health insurance are put at risk by ever-rising costs and predatory insurers."

    Make this a debate about American identity and character. "Obama must call Americans to a better version of themselves. He can do this by reciting stories of ordinary Americans in need; people who through no fault of their own have fallen between the cracks of the American health care system," Medhurst says. "He must call on the American people to put into practice the values they have always cherished--doing what is right, taking care of the needy, reaching out to those who have lost hope. In short, he must call on all Americans to rise up and live out those Judeo-Christian values upon which they base their lives."

An expert on the rhetorical presidency and co-director of the comprehensive web site www.PresidentialRhetoric.com, Medhurst keeps a close eye - and ear - on presidential speeches. One function of rhetoric, he says, is to create reality, not merely to reflect it. Medhurst says Obama needs to use his speech to create a reality in which the majority of Americans can get behind his proposals.

"It must be a reality with which the majority can identify and which comports with their self-conceptions--the kind of people they consider themselves to be," he said.

The stakes in the president's speech are high for both health care and the president's other domestic priorities.

"If he cannot pass a health care bill while his party controls both houses of Congress and the executive branch, then it will be perceived by political elites and the news media as a failure on his part in wielding the power of his office. It will hurt his chances of passing other needed legislation," Medhurst says.

Medhurst can be reached at (254) 710-7840 or Martin_Medhurst@baylor.edu.

Media contact: Lori Fogleman, director of media communications, (254) 710-6275

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