Barack Obama's favorite rhetorical strategy: Everything is related!

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 16 2009 4:37 PM

Declaration of Interdependence

Barack Obama masters his favorite rhetorical strategy.

President Obama. Click image to expand.
President Barack Obama 

In making his case for health care reform, President Obama has mastered one of his favorite rhetorical strategies: declaring interdependence. Fixing our health care system wouldn't just fix health care, he says. It would help us fix a bunch of other problems, too.

In early June, the president's Council of Economic Advisers released a paper touting the economic benefits of health care reform. Cutting costs and covering the 46 million uninsured Americans would, according to the report, create as many as 500,000 jobs a year and increase annual income for the average family of four by $2,600 over the next decade. Then, in his speech before the American Medical Association Monday, Obama linked health care reform to the auto bailout: "A big part of what led General Motors and Chrysler into trouble in recent decades were the huge costs they racked up providing health care for their workers; costs that made them less profitable, and less competitive with automakers around the world." Spending less money on health care would also rein in the deficit, presumably freeing up cash for other projects, such as education and energy technology, not to mention reducing dependence on foreign creditors. About the only thing left for Obama to cite is some statistic showing most terrorist attacks are the result of high premiums.

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This rhetorical technique—claiming that a proposed policy would solve not just one pressing problem but several others—is nothing new. But Obama seems especially fond of it, and also has a knack for it. Whether it's health care reform, closing Guantanamo, or cap-and-trade, he rarely sells a new policy just for its own sake. Instead, he presents it as part of a broader vision, in which each piece of the puzzle depends on the rest. The practice carries risks as well—but so far, at least, it is working for Obama.

Look at his case for fuel-efficiency standards. Making cars more efficient wouldn't help just the environment. It would save drivers money, reduce America's dependence on foreign oil, and help U.S. automakers compete once again by putting them at the forefront of new technologies. Same with cap-and-trade and reducing demand for electricity: Obama said it would save $130 billion on energy bills, reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and slow global warming: "And we will create five million new jobs in the process." Same, too, with converting to solar, wind, and other renewable energies. As Obama likes to put it, "Everyone wins."

In Cairo, Obama cited interdependency as a reason for increased cooperation with the Muslim world: "When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean."

The interdependency argument has several advantages. For one, it broadens the appeal of any specific policy by making it sound more beneficial to more people. Weatherizing homes doesn't just reduce emissions—it helps out the troubled home-construction industry. Greater accountability for teachers doesn't just help students learn—it saves money. Bailing out mortgage holders doesn't just stop foreclosures—it can reduce crime.

It also allows Obama to sell several policies at once. By linking health care reform with the auto bailout, for example, he tacitly makes the case for both. Diplomacy might help speed nuclear disarmament, but it could also reduce antipathy toward the United States, which could in turn reduce the threat of terrorist attacks back home. When each policy depends on the other, each one seems more essential. It's like a political Jenga tower. That makes opposition all the more difficult, explains former Gore speechwriter Jeff Nussbaum: "Pull on one thread, and you could unravel the whole thing."

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