Every Word Counts: State of the Definition

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gary s. whitfordThe Constitution mandates that “from time to time” the President of the United States “delivers information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures he (or she) shall judge necessary and expedient.”

The Constitution does not actually have the (or she) in its language because America was not as close to a democracy then – neither slaves nor women could vote or actively participate in governance. American presidents began delivering State of the Union reports in 1797, and they have delivered them as speeches since Woodrow Wilson.

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Feb. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy.)

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Feb. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy.)

Reflecting Your Opinion

Constant polling of public opinion and the immediate reporting of results may contribute to a more democratic process. We are given a perception that modern polling companies have sophisticated psychological and demographic means of determining public opinion without bias. Political organizations commission polls they trust, and shape their message – and perhaps educate their judgment – by reading the results. Presumably – I have never been polled – they represent the opinion and perhaps the will of the American people.

The Word “Jobs”

When President Barack Obama wrote and delivered his 2013 State of the Union Tuesday, he talked about jobs and Congress more than anything else. For a quick glance, check out Angelle Barbazon’s word cloud of the speech below. Mario Rubio’s response is also clouded on her post, and we’ll discuss it in a moment.

ObamaSOTUcloud

The effect of mass news channels repeating the same stories assigns potent symbolic definition to single words, and they cast even deeper ripples. “Jobs,” and the attended rebuilding of the middle class, means more than positions of employment. Jobs to one train could mean public efforts to educate and launch people into the sustainable wages through productive employment. A train on another track might hear “jobs” and suggest a relaxation of regulation and stimulus to investors.

Laying Down Track

But each and every leader will agree that we need jobs, and the President laid down his track: “Our economy is adding jobs – but too many people still can't find full-time employment. … It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class,” he said, and looped back to “jobs” throughout the speech.

In the Republican response, Sen. Marco Rubio spoke of “opportunity:"

Sen. Marco Rubio

Sen. Marco Rubio

“It comes from a vibrant free economy where people can risk their own money to open a business. And when they succeed, they hire more people, who in turn invest or spend the money they make, helping others start a business and create jobs. …. Our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity.”

Parallel Routes with no Convergence

Taken literally, there is nothing incompatible in the two perspectives. But political discourse does not allow words to merely mean their definitions, and the organizations that sponsor the President and Sen. Rubio have managed to strong-arm each other to very little consensus. The President’s second-largest word in the word cloud is “Congress.” I think he wants the legislative body to take responsibility, initiative and constructive action, but he didn’t say it in quite those words.

Impressions

That’s just the impression I get from the Greek chorus mass media. Both political organizations wield masterful influence in the news choir, where the singers are so well amplified and the concert so accessible that some Americans don’t bother finding alternative voices. Different voices that use different dictionaries are available – but that’s a story for another day.

You may have a completely different impression. I would hope so. For all of the entertainment polling provides, I’m pretty sure we all have our own perspectives. For us, every word counts for one something or another.

Transcripts and audio of the State of the Union and Republican Response are available at NPR.org. They are also on YouTube (Obama / Rubio).

 

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is half of Extraordinary Words, providing effective communications for business and non-profit development. You can find Extraordinary Words on Facebook, LinkedIn and its website. You can read more of gary’s writing on his personal blog

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