President Barack Obama went off-the-cuff in more than 20 places throughout his approximately 7,000 word State of the Union speech Tuesday night. And each time, it seemed the president was motivated to do so by a certain point he wanted to hammer home.
The most interesting ad-lib happened when Obama spoke about gun control, delivering an impassioned repetition of the phrase "They deserve a vote," in reference to victims of gun violence, including of the December shooting in Newtown. In his prepared remarks, Obama said the phrase "they deserve a vote" just once, then named the victims, then reiterated that "they deserve a simple vote." When he got to the podium, the president added in the phrase four more times.
George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley and a Democratic political strategist, says the repetition of "they deserve a vote" was a reflection of a speech he says was all about empathy.
"He's saying... 'Do you have empathy for the victims? Are you afraid to even say that you don't?' It's an emotional moment. He's saying 'Look, who are you?'" The moment was made stronger, according to Lakoff, because "the other guys [in Congress] were just just sitting there not clapping, saying nothing."
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Obama added repetition elsewhere in the speech, using the phrase "the greatest nation on Earth" not once as intended, but twice, and hammering home his call for a comprehensive immigration reform bill by echoing "now's the time to get it done," and "let's get it done" several extra times.
Elsewhere, the president inserted phrases that emphasized collaboration across-the-aisle. When talking climate change, he added "get together" in reference to Congress. When talking cyber security, he added "bipartisan." And when addressing clean air and water, he inserted "we'll work with the states."
Perhaps most telling, Obama closed his speech not with the phrase "God bless the United States of America," as intended, but referred to the country as "these" United States of America.
Lakoff says Obama's use of language of togetherness was deliberate.
"What he's doing is something he did all the way through his inauguration speech. He's setting up a moral view of what America is... he's setting up a progressive view of America: that we work together, for each other," he says.
While Obama ad-libbed about two dozen times, it wasn't nearly as much as President Bill Clinton went off-script during his State of the Union addresses. In 1995, Clinton almost doubled the length of his speech when he got to the podium, a move speechwriter Don Baer recently joked was "an ignominious mark on my record."
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