“The Impact of Video in the 2011 State of the Union Address,” Leah Jaslow (2012) — Inquiry 2

Writer’s Reflection

My focus/thesis statement in this paper is that the use of video, specifically camera angles and shots, either enhanced or challenged Obama’s use of rhetoric in the State of the Union Address. In this paper, I’m trying to express the importance of video and create a paper that takes a different approach on rhetorical analysis. What I like about this paper is that I change the typical view of what rhetorical analysis is and apply what Obama says in relation to the appeals created by the use of video. The specific changes I made to my paper after peer review were to first edit some of my language so that it became easier for the reader to understand. I then added information about the history of the use of video during the State of the Union, which I feel enhances the paper and adds context to the situation. Overall, I am pleased with this paper and feel it is an interesting rhetorical analysis that will allow readers to better interpret future State of the Union Addresses based on the use of video.


Recently, President Barack Obama gave his third State of the Union Address. This is one of the most important speeches a president makes each year. The president tells of future plans and policies he wishes to enact to improve the United States of America. In order to successfully get his point across, he must use multiple aspects of rhetoric so that he is engaging, clear, and effective in his message to the audience. This audience includes not only those present at the speech, such as the Congress and distinguished guests, but also the American people and those of other countries with interest in the United States’ actions. Obama must be able to adhere to the interests of all members of his audience when expressing his plans for improvement.

The audience that is viewing the State of the Union through their television screens receives a skewed perception of the speech due to the limited observation of the camera. What this specific, yet enormous, audience sees is entirely in the hands of those recording the speech. Depending on the choice of who to show and when, the view of the room can either enhance Obama’s message or hinder it. Throughout the speech, various camera angles add to the rhetoric used by the president to display a certain message to the public audience.

State of the Union speeches have not always been recorded through video and shown to the public. In fact, the delivery of this speech has been adjusted greatly over time. Starting with George Washington, the State of the Union, as we call it today, was quite short and spoken in front of Congress. Jefferson decided to change the delivery by providing a written text for Congress to receive. This continued until Woodrow Wilson broke the tradition in 1913 and performed the speech orally. With the invention of the radio, Cal Coolidge became the first president to have his speech broadcasted to the public. Finally, the first speech to be shown on television was in 1947 with President Harry Truman (Schlesinger). Prior to 1947, Americans were not able to witness their leader addressing them. Now, the public audience is exponentially larger, and the effect of camera use is much more vital in the impact of a State of the Union Address and the president’s use of rhetoric.

When the camera focuses on specific people in the crowd that Obama is referring to in his stories, it adds to the appeal of pathos. First, when describing the importance of renewable energy, Obama refers to a job well done by Robert and Gary Allen, brothers who aided in September 11th rebuilding and are now constructing and selling solar shingles. Having their honored expressions in focus during this statement creates a personal connection with the audience and shows how humble and proud the brothers are with the situation. Second, when discussing the difficulty of the need for workers to retrain in order to receive jobs, Obama tells the story of a mother who went back to school at age 55 so that she could become qualified for other jobs after hers no longer existed. This alone is an inspiring story for Americans, yet it is enhanced by the display of the woman herself. Gratitude and honor show in her expressions to her neighbors, leaving a feeling of emotional connection with the audience. Without the camera shot, this woman would become just another forgotten name.

Another powerful example is a strong appeal to pathos created from the combination of video and speech. The camera shows two men who Obama says he refuses to not cover and aid under the new medical bill. These men appear to be hardworking, loyal citizens. Certain viewers are able to take this specific example and connect it to a coworker, a brother, a friend, or a husband. This association helps Obama’s cause in having support for this healthcare reform.

Lastly, a personal face is used to show the possibility of the American Dream for everyone. The story of Brandon Fisher, a humble, generous, small business owner who aids in saving Chilean miners, is inspiring to Americans who believe in helping others in need. Seeing how a single individual can make such a huge impact that he is asked to attend the State of the Union Address demonstrates the numerous possibilities for dedicated Americans. These stories are purposely chosen with the concept that the camera will focus on the individuals of the stories when Obama is giving his speech in order to enhance his use of pathos.

Not only does the viewer witness the people in the stories Obama is describing, the audience also sees through the television the numerous instances throughout the State of the Union Address in which the camera focuses on members in the crowd that relate specifically to the issue he is discussing at that time. Multiple times aspects of the military are described, and the camera displays members of the military, either leaders or distinguished guests. For example, when the president addresses the controversial issue of gays in the military and when he tells of the tax cuts the military had to take, the camera goes directly to the three head military officers, showing them with far less than enthusiastic looks. This view discourages Obama’s use of ethos because of the disagreeing viewpoints of people with such high power in the United States.

On the other hand, when reassuring America’s success in the Iraq War, the military is shown giving a standing ovation. This support enhances the feeling of national pride at this time. During this same applause, the camera then shifts to a young soldier in the back of the room who is slow to get up for the standing ovation. It is then implied that he was injured in battle and evokes pathos. When Obama says, “Thanks to our heroic troops and civilians,” the camera zooms in on a young military officer. To the viewer it seems like the President is talking directly to him and every other soldier watching on television.

Finally, the recording tends to show those that agree strongly with what is being said. For instance, an enthusiastic Congressman is seen cheering when Obama states the importance of moving forward in the healthcare battle instead of living in the past. Obviously this member feels strongly about this issue and encourages the President’s use of logos at this time. When the audience views the specific crowd that the camera displays related to the topic, the message Obama attempts to display is either encouraged or called into question.

For most of the speech, the camera is zoomed tight on the President so that only the presence of the Vice-President and Speaker of the House is known, and their faces are not included. First, towards the beginning of the speech, Obama reminds the audience of some positive steps the United States has taken. During this time, the view begins with the entire crowd and then zooms slowly into a close-up of the President. This adds to the intensity and importance of Obama’s use of logos as he is encouraging viewers that many aspects of the recent year have been positive. When he directly quotes Robert Kennedy, the camera stays focused close on Obama, increasing his use of ethos by this statement. Then, after telling the story of the inspiring mother who returned to school, the focus is on him as he nods in agreement with the clapping crowd as they support his goal of increasing the number of college graduates. Obama’s serious and forceful nods show his confidence that this goal will be reached. So while a majority of the speech has the camera angle only on Obama because he is the rhetor, there are also specific instances, as listed above, that enhance his message by sustaining the focus on him.

Sending a different message than only focusing on the President during his speech, there are times when Joe Biden and John Boehner are also included in the camera shot. One way this is interpreted is through the display of the disagreements of the Democratic Vice-President and the Republican Speaker of the House. For example, when Obama brings up a controversial issue within the health care bill, Biden is seen clapping while Boehner is not. This displays that this will most likely still be an issue in the future. On the other hand, a feeling of unity is reached when both agree with a statement said by Obama. Near the beginning of the speech, the President uses phrasing regarding American exceptionalism, in which both Biden and Boehner are clapping in agreement, with the flag behind them in view. Another is toward the end when Obama recognizes the success of the American Dream in the two men sitting behind them. The camera reveals the respect and appreciation they have for one another. Both of these create an image of unity that the President purposefully adds to demonstrate that it is possible for both parties to work together. Having the three most important members of America’s government in sight allows for either the observations of their differences or the opportunity to recognize their similarities.

Many times the camera view will be that of the entire crowd that is watching the speech in person. Sometimes all will be giving a standing ovation, while other times it will be scattered. Because this year the seating arrangement was not separated by political ideology, when only one political party agreed with something, it was not in a defined area like it has been in past State of the Union Addresses. For instance, when the need for clean energy is brought to the attention of the crowd, only half of the audience responds positively. This lack of harmony shows that it is a great debate that must be heavily debated in order for changes to be made. Another time is when Obama strongly suggests no tax breaks for the wealthy. The Republicans are not pleased with his statement and make that clear, while it is opposite for the Democrats that are present. Seeing the entire crowd during these moments demonstrates the separation that is present in the Congress, which Obama is trying to avoid.

On the other hand, when everyone is giving a standing ovation, displaying the entire crowd on camera creates a sense of unity and strength. This often occurs when the President says something in relation to American exceptionalism. The statement that gets the most applause of the night is when Obama states that America “supports the democratic aspirations of all people.” This sense of national pride is shown through the viewing of the enthusiastic crowd after this statement. Being able to see how the entire crowd reacts to Obama’s speech provides immediate feedback that tells, without words, the overall opinions present.

Each of these various camera angles provides a second look at the perspective of those present at the speech. It enhances Obama’s use of ethos, pathos, and logos numerous times but also discourages some of what he is saying based on the reaction of others. There is much power in the use of video for the State of the Union speech, and it is clear that each shot is thoughtfully chosen and selected based on its impact on those watching on television. This audience is not able to see anything but what the camera allows them to watch, holding high value in each angle and the timing of that angle. The video taken of the State of the Union both enhances and challenges President Barack Obama’s use of rhetoric in one of the most important speeches of the year.


Works Cited

Obama, Barack. 2011 State of the Union Address: “Winning the Future.”

Schlesinger, Robert. “A Brief History of the State of the Union Address.” U.S. News: Politics. US News & World Report, 2011. Web. 20 February 2011.