Now that Jim Webb is formerly a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, we’ve taken another look at one of his more effective speeches: his response offered to President Bush’s State of the Union Address from 2007. The text of Webb’s remarks can be found here. Let’s begin with a general overview analysis and then focus on specific sections of his remarks.
General Comments: Effective rebuttals must identify the topic(s) at hand to be rebutted and then must make logical and/or emotional appeals to refute what was offered previously and suggest what needs to be put in place of what was offered previously. Raising anxiety and hostility early in a line of argumentation can help prime the audience to seek to change behavior and accept the new message.
Webb cleverly uses a tool of saying “It would not be possible in this short amount of time to actually rebut the President’s message, nor would it be useful”; however, that is the main effect of the speech, much along the lines of “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”
Webb’s speech first addresses some areas of common ground while adeptly giving credit to the Democratic party for making progress in these areas. Then the speech moves to the rebuttal under the guise of identifying where the parties have contradictory positions.
EffectCheck® Assessment Overall: When assessed as a political speech, as seen in Figure 1, the overall lexical impact of Webb’s rebuttal shows very high levels of hostility, high levels of anxiety and depression, but also higher than typical levels of confidence, compassion and happiness.
Fig. 1: Overall EffectCheck®assessment of Webb’s response to State of the Union 2007.
Impact word clouds show the following impressions as most likely in each category:
The clear theme of “Iraq war” is evident, with “terrorism” also being a significant contributor to anxiety and hostility. Economic issues identified in the speech are not raised with the same emotional appeal as those regarding the Iraq war. See more on this in what follows.
Emotional Flow: The emotional flow of the speech is evidenced in part as shown in Figure 2. The flow indicates high levels of confidence, happiness, and compassion in the introduction.
Figure 2. Moving window (100 words) lexical impact from start to finish.
Introduction: Webb’s opening remarks (first four paragraphs) help set the audience at ease. The emotional impact is high in happiness (optimism), higher than typical for political speeches in confidence and compassion, and notably lower than typical in anxiety and depression.
EffectCheck® Assessment of Opening Section
Economy: The section on the economy interestingly also evokes high measures of confidence and happiness. Many rebuttals would have headed more quickly to raise anxiety and hostility toward the opposition’s point of view or actions. In this case, Webb, while addressing problems identified in the economy, still manages to do this while speaking with words that are uplifting. This may have had the positive effect of also holding the audience’s attention and bringing the audience along with Webb for a longer period of time, making a greater contrast for the coming transition to a more anxious and hostile discussion. The audience knows that Webb is here to rebut the president’s remarks and he is holding them off for longer than they likely expected, building anticipation.
EffectCheck® Assessment of Economy Section
International Affairs: At last, here Webb begins to draw the audience into an emotional state of anxiety and hostility toward the identified problem areas in international affairs. The graph below shows that this is accomplished even while imbuing a high level of compassion. This can be (not always) a key combination in persuasion: the combination of anxiety/hostility with compassion (empathy).
EffectCheck® Assessment of International Affairs Section
Iraq: And now there is no mistaking the emotion tone that is being set. Even for political speeches, the lexical emotion impact is very high in anxiety, hostility, and depression, and these are not offset by compassion and happiness. All of the major anxiety, hostility, and depression word impacts come from this section.
EffectCheck® Assessment of Section on Iraq
Conclusion: Webb concludes somewhat abruptly with a standard sign-off for a national address of “Thank you for listening. And God bless America.” It has the anticipated emotional impact. Interestingly, there is the question of whether or not more could have been made of these emotions by perhaps adding another sentence or two to allow these emotions to linger longer, or whether that would have diluted the finish from the prior Iraq section.
EffectCheck® Assessment of Section on Sign-Off