Salience over sustainability: environmental rhetoric of President Barack Obama.

Author:Bricker, Brett

On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected on a mandate of change. On issues of both domestic and foreign policy, Obama represented a significant break from the previous eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. This change was well received by environmental advocates and non-governmental organizations devoted to environmental sustainability. The day following the election, the Sierra Club issued a statement proclaiming that the environmental future of the country is in "very capable hands" (as cited in Environmental News Service [ENS], 2008, para. 2). The same day, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund echoed this sentiment in a public statement: "This election offers us the greatest opportunity we have ever had to change course on global warming" (as cited in ENS, 2008, para. 6). Similarly, the President of the Defenders of Wildlife Action publicly announced: "For the first time in nearly a decade, we can look to the future with a sense of hope that the enormous environmental challenges we face will begin to be addressed" (Burkhalter, 2008, para. 14). One month after the election, environmentalists excitedly professed: "Change really is here" (Jiwatram, 2008, para. 1).

Despite this excitement among environmentalists, the public at large did not share this view of environmental policy as a top priority. In a post-election 2008 poll, Washington Post-ABC pollsters asked 1,003 respondents: "What would you say is the one most important problem you would like to see Obama and the Congress deal with next year" (para. 7)? Less than one percent responded "environment," and even fewer responded "global warming" (para. 7). An overwhelming majority wanted economic prosperity, a policy shift in the war in Iraq, unemployment legislation, or a new health care policy (para. 7). In the face of this troubling division between the public and environmentalists, and against the backdrop of a failed G8 climate change summit, Obama made a strategic political decision to emphasize economic and national security justifications for environmental policies. To this end, Obama participated in at least two strategy sessions during the campaign with "a cross section of experts" to determine the best way to define his environmental policy (Mufson & Eilperin, 2009, para. 2). Obama asked his advisors to best determine "how he could sell a low-carbon future to the American public," because he wanted his environmental policy to "pop more" (para. 4, 5) for the public. These strategy sessions encouraged Obama to turn from moral and environmental suasion to pragmatic arguments concerning national and economic security. Obama's strategy of using non-environmental appeals remained consistent, despite the plethora of constraints encountered by Obama throughout his first term (such as Climategate, the emergence of the Tea Party, economic woes, and international climate negotiations). In fact, the dual forces of domestic economic problems and widespread skepticism of climate science strengthened Obama's resolve to avoid scientific arguments in favor of noting the economic benefits of his environmental policies. By 2011, it was clear that Obama's strategies had not succeeded. Not only did his rhetoric not "pop more," but environmental issues receded from public consciousness.

In this essay, I argue that by advocating environmental policy with primarily economic and national security justifications, Obama sidelined environmental values and concerns. Consequently, Obama's arguments did little to motivate public concern for the environment proper; rather, so-called environmental policy was judged (accepted and discarded) primarily on economic and national security grounds. Although Obama's foregrounding of nonenvironmental arguments may have been politically necessary at the time, the backgrounding of environmental concerns limited long-term environmental support. I develop this argument in three sections. First, I discuss relevant argument and rhetorical theories that advance the claim that definitional strategies both foreground and background values. Theories of definition support the conclusion that even seemingly insignificant acts of defining have substantial effects on argument. Second, I analyze a set of 40 speeches from the first 17 months of the Obama administration that demonstrates Obama's choice to emphasize economic and national security arguments when discussing environmental policy. Finally, I show how Obama's economic and national security arguments limited his environmental policies, and discuss the implications of privileging salience over sustainability in presidential environmental rhetoric.


Theories of definition provide insight to understanding the implications of Obama's rhetorical choice to justify his environmental policy with non-environmental arguments. Specifically, understanding the process of definition both as a foregrounding of an argument and as a backgrounding of alternative explanation, is uniquely enlightening.

Theories of argument by definition have significantly developed in the last two decades. Argumentation and Advocacy's special issue (1999) on "Definitional Argument" provided substantial theoretical revision and progress to an already rich tradition. Titsworth (1999) found that Clinton's definition of "disability" (p. 171) in the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act exemplified how ideology can influence definition even when such naming is seemingly benign. Broda-Bahm (1999) argued that defining environmental problems as security concerns is not a neutral or objective truth claim but rather manipulates and directs the audience to a specific mindset. Zarefsky (2006), in Argumentation, centered the debate on persuasive intent arguing that, by using definition, rhetoricians are really providing an "implicit argument" through "strategic maneuvering" (pp. 404, 409).

These studies, generally, focus on definition as foregrounding a specific argument. For example, Titsworth (1999) stated that definition is a "starting point for arguments" (p. 171), and McGee (1999) agreed, noting that definitions are "the points at which many arguments begin" (p. 141). Zarefsky (2006) pointed to specific instances in which persuasive definitions were created, including social insurance as "Social Security," the blockade of Cuba as "quarantine," and Reagan's choice to name the MX missile the "Peace-keeper" (p. 404). Schiappa (2003) noted the "domestication" (p. 132) of objectionable terms like "nuclear weapons, strategy, and war" (p. 135) through metaphorical definition as particularly capable of manipulating an audience.

Each of these examples elucidates how a rhetorician uses a specific definition, or naming strategy, to foreground an argument or ideology. In this regard, argument scholars have explained the process by which a definition shapes the interpretation of a situation. However, argument scholars, thus far, have deemphasized what is not said and what is left behind--the backgrounding of alternative definitions. By highlighting a particular definition, or argument, a rhetor shields distinct interpretations from the public's consciousness. Although many have written about the role of definition, they have largely focused on the foregrounding of definitions. The obvious corollary is that when one definition is foregrounded, others are backgrounded. Titsworth (1999) was hinting at this point when he used the Burkean concept of scene (background) to explain the disciplinary nature of disability discourse. In this essay, Titsworth argued that the background can drastically shape the way a definition functions but did not explicitly recognize the rhetor's role in shaping that background. Similarly, Walton (2001) pointed in this direction in his discussion of the dialectic between definition and counter-definition in argumentative strategies (p. 131). Here, Walton argued that the background and foreground are in constant flux as competing parties define and redefine arguments in the public consciousness (p. 117). This essay draws from the theoretical foundation started by Titsworth, Walton, and others to build a more nuanced interpretation of definition that focuses primarily on backgrounded values and arguments--what is forgotten or discarded in the process of definitional argument.

Definitions impose frames that organize reality in such a way that alternative depictions of a situation are either deemphasized or forgotten. Thus, valuable insight can be derived from asking not only "what is foregrounded?" but also "what is backgrounded?" Given the explicit choice made by the Obama campaign to foreground economic and national security arguments, and background environmental justifications, this case study is valuable for answering both questions.

The backgrounding of environmental values influences the evolution of environmental arguments in two ways. First, a definition of environmental issues as a security/economic issue privileges an alternative thematic construction. In this case, the primary message is shifted from environmental sustainability to producing jobs and reducing dependence on oil. Thus, backgrounded environmental values become unimportant. Second, the foregrounded definition emphasizes an alternative criterion for assessment. Debates about environmental policy are no longer to be decided on environmental grounds, and economic and national security counterarguments are given added salience because of the values supported by the foregrounded definition. When the opposite approach is taken, environmental values are foregrounded, and economic and national security values are defined as secondary, or even tertiary, concerns. In this alternative approach, counterarguments concerning economics and national security are given less salience because the environmental benefit is the primary argument used to define policy.


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