Barack Obama is a master of rhetoric – and last night he gave one of the most important speeches of his second term, laying the foundations for his policy priorities over the next four years. Language and discourse expert Kate Pond examines the text of his inaugural and State of the Union speeches for clues about the story the administration wants to tell on climate change.
The Inaugural and State of the Union (SOTU) speeches use three interlocking frames, all of which are frequently used in climate change rhetoric: apocalypse, social progress and responsibility, and economic development.
Frames are always present in language. They tailor the message to the audience and offer context for understanding the information given. They set a storyline with causes and consequences indicating – among other things – blame, responsibility, and what can be done.
Frames can define particular words – and in the same way, words can activate frames. So how does Obama use these frames in his speeches?
Apocalypse is the most commonly used of these frames: it uses the easily recognisable language of catastrophe to indicate urgency, but it can also make people feel they’re impotent to stop the threat. By combining it with other frames, Obama seeks to tap into the apocalypse frame’s well-known language, but neutralise the idea of powerlessness. He moves instead into a frame that indicates moral responsibility (the social progress frame), and then into the economic frame, which spotlights action.
The inaugural: Setting the tone
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
“[W]we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God”.
The inaugural speech combines these frames to create a linear relationship of authority, action and consequence. Ordained by God, action is urgently required to avert social, environmental and economic catastrophe.
Obama gives primacy to “the overwhelming judgement of science”, which then locks into the economic and social frames to repeatedly position responsibility for action at the feet of “we the people”. Basically, acting on climate change is everyone’s responsibility: we have the scientific evidence and the tools to do it.
The apocalyptic frame appears predominantly in negative terms emphasising the urgency of action: “raging fires”; “crippling droughts”; “the destructive power of a warming planet”.
Meanwhile, the statement that the planet was “commanded to our care by God” appeals to a higher order and indicates that humans have a duty and a responsibility. But it also indicates that while we can ameliorate the impact of climate change, human action is ultimately limited.
If he left it there, Obama would run the risk of playing into the apocalyptic frame’s associations with powerlessness. So he counters that idea with the frame of social responsibility.
According to this frame, doing nothing is a “betrayal” to the generations that will follow us and past generations, specifically the Founding Fathers. Obama says action on climate change is “what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared”.
This links into the economic frame, and the potential for action. Obama promises “new jobs” and “new industries” to maintain the US’s “economic vitality”. Even the natural environment gets a fiscal metaphor, refigured as a “national treasure”.
He promises economic competitiveness abroad as well as at home thanks to green industries, stating America “must lead”, and cannot “cede [technological advances] to other nations”. Here “cannot” – as opposed to ‘will not’ – suggests it’s unthinkable for the US to fall behind global competition, while “must” implies urgency.
This frame also gives a second interpretation to the appeal to divinity: that failure to act goes against a divine mandate.
State of the Union: building on the foundations
“The good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth.”
Last night, Obama further developed his framing of climate change. Taken together, the collective use of the three frames redefines words related to climate change within the master frame of economic growth, innovation and prosperity – and this is what State of the Union is all about.
A master frame is the one that focuses the message and affects what the other frames convey. In this case, Obama’s counting on the economic frame to have a wider appeal among the US population than environmentalism.
Reframing climate change as an economic problem allows for the presentation of an economic solution.
All of the topics Obama addresses in SOTU – education, employment and wages, Medicare, energy and climate change, security, manufacturing and technology – are expressed as parts of economic growth. He sidelines apocalypse in favour of an empowering narrative of opportunity and innovation.
So he describes extreme weather events as “more frequent and more intense”, and stresses urgency in a call to “act before it’s too late”, but he immediately balances this with a narrative of economic opportunity: “We can make meaningful progress on [climate change] while driving strong economic growth”.
This hinges on renewable energy sources as job creators essential to keeping the US competitive. He says: “As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we”.
Just as important is the capacity to act. As Obama has it: “We are finally poised to control our own energy future”.
The economic master frame’s dominance relies heavily on an economic solution – “a bipartisan, market-based solution” – alongside investment in new technologies and reducing energy wastage being beneficial to the nation, business and the individual.
Leaving apocalypse behind
By connecting these frames, Obama puts action in the spotlight – it’s not only possible to act, he says, it’s our moral and economic duty. He rams the point home with verbs of future action in both speeches: “I will”, “we can”, “we must”.
Constant repetition of collective pronouns in the inaugural speech (‘We the people’ appears five times, for example) consolidates a focus on togetherness and personal responsibility.
Meanwhile, SOTU in particular is characterised by progress, reform and collective action. It contains verbs and adjectives that suggest advancement: “drive”, “greater”, “speed”, “speeding up”.
These combine with a definite statement of intent and accountability in SOTU. Lines like “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will” suggest action to combat climate change is necessary, imminent and a key part of the “task of us all as citizens of the United States”.
This movement from apocalypse to action lays the foundations for the rhetorical approach to climate policy in Obama’s second term. It aims to indicate to the audience there’s real hope that the administration will take steps to reduce carbon emissions and promote cleaner energy.
Dr Kate Pond has a PhD in English from the University of York. Her thesis was on metaphor, and she is interested in rhetoric and discourse analysis.
Photo: Creative Commons