The Rhetorician in the White House — Or, How I Learned to Love the Passive Voice

barack obama at  pyramids during 2009 cairo visit.

President Obama during his 2009 visit to Cairo.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

The passive voice gets a bad rap — it’s weak, it’s vague, it’s passive. But in the hands of a skilled rhetorician like President Obama, a neatly turned passive sentence is just what our ever-shrinking world needs right now.

But first, what’s a passive sentence? I think of it as a sentence in which the subject — the doer or agent — is obscured. (More on the passive voice and its passive cousins in my post of June 19.)

Notice how Obama put the passive sentence to good use on June 4 during his Cairo speech to the Arab world. Of the war in Iraq, he says:

“Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world.”

  • Here, the President – tactfully – avoids placing blame for the Iraq war on George W. Bush and his followers. He declares the Iraq war “a war of choice” — but he does not name the “chosers.” Thus, Obama avoids offending Republicans as well as any American voters out there who might have supported Bush and his war.
  • With the phrase, “strong differences,” Obama puts his Arab listeners on notice that not all Americans supported the war — again, without painting its supporters as egregiously wrong-headed.
president barack obama giving speech in cairo, 2009. sentinel photo.

Obama in Cairo, 2009.

Later in Obama’s Cairo speech, he directs his comments to the Muslim world:

“Among some Muslims, there’s a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of somebody else’s faith.”

 Here again, Obama avoids an accusatory tone:

  • He does not use “Muslims” as the subject of the sentence. He lets the noun “tendency” take the rap.
  • He softens the verb “reject” by turning it into a noun – “rejection.”
  • He does not stir up old resentments by naming Jews and Christians as the object of Muslim censure. He simply says “somebody else.”

The trouble with a passive sentence, of course, is it lacks punch. It can put a reader right to sleep. Obama knows this. He keeps his listeners awake by plugging in strong, precise verbs: Provoke. Remind. Resolve. Measure. Reject.

 How did Obama get so smart? More on that next time.

Grammar geeks might want to tune in to my post on . . . wait for it . . .  the  colon! And,  Wondering what rhetoric is? Let my two-year-old explain.



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