The State of the Union Address as a Learning Moment

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We can spend days analyzing President Joe Biden’s January 7, 2023, State of the Union address to the joint houses of Congress. Given the response the speech has received, students of speech and rhetoric will likely be studying it for years to come. Although this State of the Union address has been rated as the most confrontational address ever, this address also illustrates the importance of audience awareness and the pursuit of common ground. 

The key example of audience awareness that no one can stop talking about is how President Biden got the two parties to come to a consensus, right there on the floor of the chamber, on Social Security and Medicare. He was cautious in how he broached the subject. He referred to how some of his Republican colleagues have proposed sunsetting Social Security. Knowing that Republicans would oppose this statement, President Biden came prepared to support his statement by promising to send Rick Scott a copy of his written proposal which outlined the facts.  

It was a guessing game throughout the speech at what points Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy would signal to his Republican colleagues that they should stand by standing himself. They were actually in the embarrassing position of NOT standing in support of such generally popular ideas as better pay for teachers and aid to Ukraine. When it came to Social Security and Medicare, the majority of Republicans were eager to distance themselves from Rick Scott in his desire to cut these popular entitlement programs. They leaped to their feet to applaud America’s seniors, and once they were there, Biden pointed out that it seemed everyone agreed that we cannot do away with Social Security and Medicare.

Common ground is often the starting point for moving two opposing sides toward agreement. By getting Democrats and Republicans to agree to support what is best for the elderly he seemed to decrease by a tiny degree the schism in the room.

Presidents have long brought into the chamber for the State of the Union special guests who like, in this case, Tyree Nichols’s mother and stepfather, have experienced terrible and widely publicized tragedy. Biden was respectful of the couple’s loss and actually used the difference between their experience and that of his family to illustrate the racism that still exists in America. Biden recalled that he never had to warn his sons that if they were pulled over by the police, they should turn on the inside car light, put both hands on the wheel, and make no sudden moves. The common ground, of course, is that no parent should have to.

When addressing an audience with polarizing views, speakers need to be aware of how easily their message can be skewed, be strategic about how they get their message across, and bolster their supporting data against loopholes. As President Biden demonstrated in his State of the Union address, sometimes finding common ground is the simplest way to ensure that the purpose of the message is heard.   

"Joe Biden"  by GPA Photo Archive is licensed under CC BY 2.0

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.