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Obama Drama (A pentadic criticism of his sequester statement)

Posted by on March 6, 2013

Obama sequester statement
We love it. Movies, television, fiction, political theatre, sports and spectacle. Life is drama, or at least that is how we make sense of life.

The 20th century rhetorician Kenneth Burke saw drama everywhere, saw it as a way that people constructed their realities. While the material world is perceived by our five senses, we must interpret those perceptions through a set of symbols—language, writing, images. Thus we do not directly engage our material environment, but act upon it symbolically (Burke’s symbolic action), defining reality based on a set of symbolic systems: language, mathematics, science, art…drama.

For Burke, language and symbolic systems were not just a means for constructing reality or “truth,” but also as vehicles of action. We act based on how we interpret and define our reality, and for Burke, the best way to understand the bases of human conduct and motivation is in dramatistic terms. We tell stories to understand our relation to the world, to history, to each other, to life, and so it follows that this way of understanding ourselves—drama—would affect all of our symbolic action.

Burke argues that there are five questions—a pentad, if you will—that we provide answers to whenever we describe a situation:

What was done? ACT

When or where was it done? SCENE

Who did it? AGENT

How was it done? AGENCY

Why was it done? PURPOSE

(Grammar of Motives, xvii)

You will probably recognize the journalistic questions of who, what, where, why, and how here. This is Burke’s Dramatistic Pentad, what he called “a synoptic way to talk about their [humans’] talk-about” (GM 56). It’s a way for us to analyze rhetoric.


But the purpose of rhetorical criticism using the pentad is not just to analyze rhetorical content, but motive. By examining how one describes a situation or act through this dramatic lens, we can understand how the speaker is privileging one of the five dramatic terms over another, and in doing so reveal his or her true motive for the rhetorical act. If we take Lloyd Bitzer’s view of rhetoric as a “mode of altering reality,” (Philosophy & Rhetoric)—the attempt of the speaker/writer to get his audience to accept his version of reality—then the pentad is a tool by which we can discover how the rhetor has attempting to alter his audience’s reality. “One may deflect attention from scenic matters by situating the motives of an act in the agent,” Burke writes in A Grammar of Motives, “or conversely, one may deflect attention from criticism of personal motives by deriving an act or attitude not from traits of the agent but from the nature of the situation” (17).

For example, let’s say an op-ed writer for a national newspaper is discussing the cause of high rates of gun violence in inner-city Detroit. If she were to emphasize poverty, lack of access to social institutions like libraries, after-school programs, parks and recreation, she would be privileging scene over agent. The agent is a victim of the environment, and is thus absolved of responsibility. Further, the solution to such a problem would lie in changing the scene: gentrifying the neighborhood, organizing the community to help create jobs, channeling government resources into improving the environment.

To know the shape of each drama, what gives it a persuasive bias, we must first name the parts—act, scene, agent, agency, purpose—and then pair these parts into “ratios” to discover the dominant term. Using the example above, we could look at how the op-ed writer describes the agent and scene in relation to the act, where the act is gun-violence, the scene is inner-city Detroit, and the agents are the people living in these neighborhoods, both victims and perpetrators of the violence. If the writer emphasizes the effect of living in poverty on one’s ability to find work, stay in school, and stay off the streets, she creates a ratio of scene-agent that emphasizes the dominance of the scene.

So let’s apply this method of rhetorical criticism to a recent act, the March 1 White House press conference where President Obama made his statement about the sequester. In case you’ve been living under a rock, the sequester is a set of across-the-board cuts to federal spending (7.9% to defense, 5.3% to domestic discretionary spending, 2% to Medicare, 5.8% to nondefense programs, and 7.8% in mandatory defense programs) that was triggered on March 1 when Congress could not come to an agreement on deficit reduction. The sequester was meant to be so harsh, so devastating (most economists agree that it will stall economic growth, if not push us back into a recession) that Congress would have to act to avoid, and came about as a result of the debt ceiling debates in the summer of 2011. It is a purely manufactured crisis, but one that has become all too real when Congress failed to come to any compromise.

In Obama’s statement, we can identity these elements:

Act: severe budget cuts (the sequester) that will hurt the America economy, and thus its people

Agent: Congress / American people

Scene: Washington, DC (the mythical/symbolic DC which represents American government).

Agency: the sequester law

Purpose: to reduce debt

In describing the problem, President Obama ordered the elements in such a way that the Agent—Congress—became controlling. He first sets the stage by providing a context for his statement: he had just met with leaders of both political parties and told them to that these cuts will hurt the economy, and that they need to fix it now.

As you know, I just met with leaders of both parties to discuss a way forward in light of the severe budget cuts that start to take effect today.  I told them these cuts will hurt our economy.  They will cost us jobs.  And to set it right, both sides need to be willing to compromise.

Notice the “I told them…” tone, the parent lecturing the naughty children. We’ll get to that in a moment.

President Obama goes on to describe the effect of the sequester law—the Agency by which the Act (the cuts) will take place—on the American people, also Agents.

He starts off by praising the American people as “strong” and “resilient,” describing how hard they fought “to recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.” He establishes an Agency-Agent / Act-Agent ratio, where the American people as Agent are victims of the Agency (the means) and the Act. He’s carefully establishing the stakes, and describing how the Act is taking place, so he may then put the blame on those performing the Act, the Agents (Congress). “[W]e’ll know,” he says, “that that economic news could have been better if Congress had not failed to act.”

He also is careful to align himself with the American people, as in when he says “we will get through this as well.” Just as the American people are the victims of a nefarious Agent and Agency, so is he.

After establishing the stakes and the victims of the Act, he narrows the definition of the Agent-as-culprit, ensuring that the blame is placed solidly on the shoulders of the Republican members of Congress:

And let’s be clear.  None of this is necessary.  It’s happening because of a choice that Republicans in Congress have made.  They’ve allowed these cuts to happen because they refuse to budge on closing a single wasteful loophole to help reduce the deficit.  As recently as yesterday, they decided to protect special interest tax breaks for the well-off and well-connected, and they think that that’s apparently more important than protecting our military or middle-class families from the pain of these cuts.

Each dramatic action of “choice” by the Agent here is carefully worded so as to appear absurd and illogical: “refuse to budge on closing a single wasteful loophole” (my emphasis); tax breaks for the “well-off and well-connected”; “apparently more important”.

In case we didn’t get it earlier, he ensures that he, also an Agent, is not to blame for this problem by laying out the Agency he supports, an Agency that could solve the problem of the Act:

I do believe that we can and must replace these cuts with a more balanced approach that asks something from everybody:  Smart spending cuts; entitlement reform; tax reform that makes the tax code more fair for families and businesses without raising tax rates —  all so that we can responsibly lower the deficit without laying off workers, or forcing parents to scramble for childcare, or slashing financial aid for college students.

Whereas the language describing the Republican choices indicates absurdity, the language describing his choices evoke logic and reason: “balanced,” “smart,” “fair,” “responsible.” He’s the responsible parent, they are the unruly children.

He’s already established the Agent responsible, and now he further places that element as the controlling factor by demonstrating how the Agent, by adopting his Agency, (or the children following their parent’s advice) can solve the problem:

I don’t think that’s too much to ask.  I don’t think that is partisan.  It’s the kind of approach that I’ve proposed for two years.  It’s what I ran on last year.  And the majority of the American people agree with me in this approach, including, by the way, a majority of Republicans.  We just need Republicans in Congress to catch up with their own party and their country on this.  And if they did so, we could make a lot of progress.

I do know that there are Republicans in Congress who privately, at least, say that they would rather close tax loopholes than let these cuts go through.  I know that there are Democrats who’d rather do smart entitlement reform than let these cuts go through.  So there is a caucus of common sense up on Capitol Hill.  It’s just — it’s a silent group right now, and we want to make sure that their voices start getting heard.

The sequester has been discussed in earnest by the national media for the last sixth months. None of the suggestions here are new. President Obama is well aware of the public opinion polling that gives him a favorability rating of 49% to the Republicans’ 29% (41% for Democrats).

52% say the sequester cuts are a bad idea versus 21% that say they are good. But the polling is not as clear once people are asked for a specific plan. The President finds himself in a better position with the public, and he intends to use that leverage to force the Republican party to follow his plan for deficit reduction, which includes a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases, mostly in the form of closing tax loopholes. The Republicans, on the other hand, want only spending cuts.

By placing the Agent (Republicans) as controlling element of the Act, President Obama is attempting to solidify the “reality” of this situation reflected in public opinion, that Republicans are to blame for future economic pain, that their ideology is absurd and irresponsible, and that they alone can change the trajectory by adopting the reasonable, smart Agency he proposes.

There is an implied call to action here as well: the American public, also Agents, but in a ratio of Act-Agent, where they are a victim of Republican obstinacy and partisanship, can become active Agents by putting pressure on their Republican congressmen to act using the Agency of Obama’s solution to the problem. He has aligned himself with American public, and since he is smart and reasonable, by nature so are the American people. They must unite against the absurdity of that is the Republican party.

Politics is perhaps the ultimate dramatic theatre, and it exists in a reality constructed by the symbolic rhetorical acts of its actors. President Obama (as did all presidents) reached his position and was re-elected because of his ability to direct the drama of our political reality. We shall see how this latest symbolic act shapes the economic future of our country.

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