On July 27, 2004, a man named Barack Obama gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention that changed history. At the time, Obama was a little-known politician, with an out-of-print book and an unsuccessful Senate bid. But his speech made him a “political rock star”—just four years later, he was elected president. In this chapter, Heinrichs will discuss the structure of Obama’s speech, and why it’s a masterpiece of rhetoric.
Obama is often regarded as a great orator—even by some people who disagree with his politics. He’s often likened to great rhetoricians of the past, such as Lincoln, King, and Franklin Roosevelt. Therefore, it’s worthwhile to study Obama’s speeches in order to get a sense for what great contemporary rhetoric sounds like.
Obama’s speech is a classically structured piece of rhetoric. He begins with an introduction in which he establishes his ethos by modestly claiming, “My presence on this stage is pretty unlikely.” Then, he narrates the story of his parents, emphasizing his connection with the American dream and further boosting his ethos. Then Obama moves on to the division, emphasizing the differences between Republicans and Democrats with a single sentence, “We have work to do” (suggesting that George W. Bush, the current president, has been a disaster). Next comes the proof: Obama catalogues the signs of the work that lies ahead of the country (violations of civil liberties, oil companies being too big, an unjust war). For the refutation, Obama criticizes the “spin masters” who seek to divide America, and emphasizes the unity in America today. To conclude, Obama throws his support to the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, emphasizing that Kerry will bring the country together. Kerry didn’t win the election, but Obama’s speech helped him get elected four years later.
Heinrichs admires Obama’s rhetoric in part because it perfectly exemplifies the rules of classical rhetoric as articulated by Cicero and Aristotle. Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention is often regarded as one of the most successful of modern times, since it almost singlehandedly launched Obama to national recognition and made him a bona fide political celebrity. It’s especially interesting that Obama rose to national recognition after speaking at the DNC, since many DNC speakers have been criticized for talking about themselves too excessively when they’re supposed to be praising the Democrats’ presidential candidate. Obama succeeds in expressing his support for John Kerry while simultaneously emphasizing his own ethos and connecting with the values and desires of the American people in general.
Obama’s first inaugural address was another masterpiece of rhetoric. He used demonstrative rhetoric to unite his audience, alluding to a common foe—the people who supposedly want to destroy American values. He also found a clever way to turn a problem—the horrible economy—into strong rhetoric about identity, insisting that his constituents’ grandchildren would look back on them as a great, proud generation.
In the early stages of his presidency, Obama emphasized the demonstrative, rather than the deliberative—in other words, he emphasizes American values and beliefs rather than the precise choices that lay ahead. In doing so, Obama created a strong implicit connection between himself and the American people, emphasizing his values and disinterest.
In other speeches, Obama has used other notable rhetorical techniques. At the 2008 Democratic National Convention, he admonished his audience by flattering it, saying, “America, we are better than these last eight years.” He used imagery that felt almost cinematic to enthrall his audience, describing how a labor movement demonstration had been broken up by police gunfire. Obama also uses balancing figures to make complex concepts seem very simple. In 2008, after coming under fire for his connections to a controversial reverend, Jeremiah Wright, Obama took a big risk by arguing that Wright’s extremism was a reflection of the complicated story of race. He uses antithesis, the pairing of opposites, to talk about the pros and cons, the “kindness and cruelty” both of Wright’s persona and of “the black experience in America.”
At the time of this book’s writing, Obama was still a newly inaugurated president; indeed, some people have complained that the quality of Obama’s orations noticeable decreased as his presidency went on. However, Heinrichs’ examples of Obama’s rhetorical skill remind readers that Obama rose to power by using the art of rhetoric, using his rhetorical prowess to inspire voters and weather controversies. In particular, Obama used rhetorical techniques like antithesis to avoid a major scandal when his opponents connected him to Jeremiah Wright.
Another rhetorical strategy that Obama uses frequently is connecting unlike things through alliteration (e.g., “This is the price and the promise of citizenship”). He often stresses an idea by saying that he has “one word, just one word,” and then introducing an emotionally charged word or phrase, such as “tomorrow.” In his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama was a master of channeling the ethos of great historical figures, such as Martin Luther King Jr. He made speeches that imitated King’s fondness for symploce, the rhetorical technique of repeating the beginning and end of successive clauses. Then, in one of his first speeches as president, Obama channeled another famous American, John F. Kennedy, by talking about duty to one’s country. In doing so, Obama focused his country’s attention on the future, moving from demonstrative to deliberative rhetoric.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Obama’s rhetoric is the diversity of rhetorical devices that he uses consistently; Heinrichs lists many different examples of figures of speech and thought in Obama’s speeches. While it’s probably still too early to say what Obama’s legacy will be, it’s hard to dispute that he rose to power thanks in large part to his inspiring rhetoric, which showed a sophisticated understanding of many of the points that Thank You for Arguing discusses.