There is a disturbing trend in the recent speeches of President Obama, and it was on full display during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address. This trend goes beyond emotional rhetoric, which the President has used successfully for years. Rather it the exploitative use of human props.
Think back to before the inauguration. On January 16, President Obama announced his ideas on aggressive gun control and came to the table armed with the letters of four young children. As he walked from the podium to a desk to sign a number of executive orders, he gave each kid a high five. Having signed the orders he gave each of them a hug.
Fast forward to January 29. President Obama flew to Las Vegas to announce his ideas on immigration reform. In the gym at Del Sol High School, Obama delivered a stirring, campaign-style speech. Though there were no case-in-point examples standing behind him, the entire assembly crowded into the room served as a backdrop in an event broadcast to the nation.
Obama made another speech on gun violence at the Minneapolis Police Department on February 4. Men and women in uniform stood at attention, straight-faced, arrayed behind the president. At various points in the speech, the president turned and referenced these police officers.
Finally, on February 12, President Obama gave his State of the Union Address and predictably, the room was peppered with human props. More than 30 gun violence victims sat spaced throughout the room including the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old girl who performed at the inauguration that was tragically shot just miles from Obama’s Chicago residence. They sat next to the first lady.
Also in attendance were a few ordinary citizens with inspiring stories, all of which the president relayed. Menchu Sanchez, a New York City nurse who devised a rescue plan to save newborn babies in the path of Super Storm Sandy, sat on the other side of Mrs. Obama. Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old woman who stood in line for nearly three hours to vote, received a standing ovation. Lt. Brian Murphy, who was shot 15 times responding to the Sikh temple massacre in Wisconsin, sat directly behind Ms. Sanchez. They all seemed to feel honored to have been recognized.
But while these people were invited and honored, they were invited for the emotional capital they would produce in a nationally televised spectacle. The evidence is this: the cameras were trained on these guests of honor, the three heroes and the more than 30 impacted by gun violence. The cameras were poised, and when President Obama introduced each of the three remarkable individuals named above, they did not skip a beat in televising their faces to the nation.
When President Obama repeated over and over, “They deserve a vote [on gun regulations],” the camera’s didn’t scan the room passing over the faces of politicians and guests. Instead they picked through the crowd, settling here and there on the emotional profiles of those who have lost loved ones to gun violence.
They had a right to be emotional during the crescendo of President Obama’s State of the Union Address. Obama had no right to use their emotion to drive his brand.