Friday, March 11, 2005

On Presidential Analogy

Speaking at Centenary College of Louisiana, President Bush talked about Social Security. He said,
It's a big issue. It's a big issue because it affects everybody's life. First, let me start off by telling you FDR did a good thing. Franklin Roosevelt did a good thing when he set up the Social Security system. You know why I say that? I say that because it's helped a lot of retirees. It has worked. It has worked, and, therefore, one of the things that I want to tell the people here in this audience and all across Louisiana and in east Texas, and whoever else is listening: if you're getting a check, nothing will change; if you have retired, not one thing is going to change when it comes to Social Security. The United States government will keep its commitment. I don't care what the advertisements say. I don't care what the political pamphlets say. I don't care what the politicians say. Nobody is going to take away your check.
In this section, President Bush accomplishes at least two things. First, he establishes Roosevelt as an active agent, the one who established Social Security. Second, he creates social security recipients of the past as passive figures. He then uses his contemporary audience as stand-ins for those passive recipients of the past. In this way, the retirees (a demographic defined by a stopping of work) of the past are represented by a body of passive listeners. At the same time, Bush, like FDR, is cast as an active agent, telling--assuring--his passive listeners that they will not lose their checks. In the process, however, Bush is compelled to simultaneously cast himself as a passive figure too. In Bush's words, the active agents are the commercials, pamphlets, and politicians who actively imply that Bush is a threat to their social securitym not Bush. The only way to assure his audience, then, is by declaring his own passivity; Bush promises not to do anything to their checks. So, despite all of his active talking, Bush is ultimately a passive figure.

In short order, however, Bush offers a humorous bit:
Since the 1950s, a couple of things have happened. People are having fewer babies and the baby boomers are getting ready to retire. I happen to be one. As a matter of fact, I turn 62 in 2008. That's a good enough time for me to retire. (Laughter and applause.) Just about right timing. (Applause.) And there's a lot of me, people like me. There are a lot of baby boomers; I'm just the beginning of the baby boomer ear.
The audience laughs at this joke (according the White House website, at least) and I assume it's because they think the line is funny. And it is a funny line, but not just because everyone knows that Bush's retirement is not the typical kind of retirement.

It's also funny because it doesn't seem to fit well, for two reasons. One, as the previously discussed passage suggests, Bush's text attempts to create a passive role for the president. Now, with this joke, Bush has to upset this carefully crafted passivity by acknowledging his very active role as President. Two, it doesn't work because Bush cannot easily stand in for the average person on this issue. In trying to use his body as a form of analogy, Bush underscores the difference between himself and his audience; that's why we laugh. The line is only funny because it is odd to think of the President as retiring since it's ordinary folk who retire, not the leaders of the free world.

The problem that appears within the text is a tension that might be repeating itself everywhere within the debate on Social Security. I think that very few of us expect Senators Kennedy or Kerry to really rely on their social security checks, but the universalizing nature of social security rhetoric, tends to create an awkwardness for the policy makers who are making the speeches and decisions. It's certainly not that I expect that these leaders shouldn't or cannot talk about the issue because they are the leaders, it's precisely because they are the leaders that they have to talk about the issue. No, I would just like them to show a little more care in using themselves as forms of evidence and analogy. The issue, after all, is not all about them.


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