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National Identities

Vol. 12, No. 3, September 2010, 269290

The role of narrative in political campaigning: An analysis of

speeches by Barack Obama
Stefanie Hammer*

Political Theory Department, University of Erfurt, Germany

Nation-states persist as the dominant pattern of political organization. Their

survival depends on the self-identification of the citizenry as a national com-
munity. Narratives or stories of peoplehood tell people that they are part of this
unique community. This article focuses on the American nation as imagined by
Barack Obama. In his speeches Obama portrays the America nation as a people
unified by a shared belief in the American Creed and sanctified by the symbolism
of an American civil religion. It is argued here that it is this addressing of the
broadest possible coalition of voters which contributed to the success of the
Obama campaign.
Keywords: narrative; national identity; campaign rhetoric; American Creed; civil

In the twenty-first century, a large number of threats that the international com-
munity faces originate in areas of statelessness (Fukuyama, 2005). Lacking the
essential criteria for statehood  namely a definite territory and a people  it is the
resulting deficit of a legitimate monopoly for the use of force that poses a danger for
those humans living inside and outside of functioning state borders (Nohlen, 2002).
The study of national identities, which bestows meaning upon the modern con-
struct of a state, must therefore remain a central field of inquiry.1 The survival and
(re)construction of new and old nation-states depends on the loyalty of their citizens;
a loyalty which must be attained and maintained partly by the forces of narratives.
The study of narratives is an essential part of a nation-making and maintaining
process for modernist scholars such as Benedict Anderson, Ernest Renan or Ernest
Gellner, who believe that nations are a modern construction.2 While Renan raised
the initial question What is a nation?, Benedict Andersons account delivered the
memorable reply that nations should be understood as imagined communities since
the fundamental requirement to make a nation in the modern era is a narrative that
tells the members of a community too large to truly know one another to image them-
selves as a nation (Anderson, 1991; Renan, 1995).
Rogers M. Smith positions himself within the modernism camp when stating
that: No political people are natural or primordial. All are the products of long,
conflict-ridden histories, and all must be understood as human creations, formed by
participants in preexisting forms of peoplehood (Smith, 2003, p. 32). He under-
stands nations to represent one of various kinds of political people, which are formed

ISSN 1460-8944 print/ISSN 1469-9907 online
# 2010 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/14608944.2010.503439
270 S. Hammer

with the help of narratives or stories.3 It is these narratives, their specific content as
well as their instrumentality for the political process which Smith focuses on.
Smith defines his Stories of Peoplehood as persuasive historical stories that
prompt people to embrace the valorized identities, play stirring roles, and have the
fulfilling experiences that political leaders strive to evoke for them, whether through
arguments, rhetoric, symbols, or stories of a more obvious and familiar sort (Smith,
2003, p. 45). Incumbent and potential political leaders in their role as narrators, as
well as the recipients of such narrative  the constituency, are the central actors in
Smiths theory of people-making. Because both the leaders and the addressed
audience enter the process of people-making with pre-existing identities, interests
and ideals (the three Is), Smith characterizes the process of people-making as
constrained, never taking place de novo. Also, the narrating process is identified
as asymmetrical since the political leaders dominate the communicative act. Never-
theless, in democratic systems, the mechanism of voting increases the agency of the
constituents and therefore makes more room for the influence of their pre-existing
Is (Smith, 2003, pp. 326).
Smith puts strong emphasis on the competition between narratives of incumbent
leaders and aspirants to political power. In democratic political systems, the goal of
a story of peoplehood thus is to lead as many people as possible. Most try to forge
the broadest coalitions they can, and often the largest coalition will be the most
powerful (Smith, 2003, p. 56). The success of a story is then especially determined by
the attention the narrator pays to the constraining effects of the three Is of his or
her audience whose incorporation or neglect determines the extent of following
a particular story achieves. Not only should the narrator anticipate these pre-existing
stories as potential forces, but he or she must also be able to portray themselves as
the only viable representative of these stories. Smiths insistence on the remaining
eminence of not only the making, but also the maintaining, of peoples through
narratives manifests the application of his concept in the context of political cam-
paigns as competitions between distinct stories that position the respective candidate
as the viable representative of a particular image of a nation.
In this article I wanted to concentrate on the answer Barack Obama provides
to the question Who are we?. By way of a rhetorical analysis, I therefore contribute
a unique approach to the understanding of the United States in the twenty-first
century and, in addition, highlight why more attention needs to be paid to narratives
pursued by politicians throughout their campaigns.4 My central argument is that in
his campaign narrative, Barack Obama embraces the one over the many and presents
his vision of an America united as a nation based on commonly held political
principles referred to as the American Creed. In addition, Obama makes use of the
traditional symbolic dimension of American nationalism for which Robert N. Bellah
(1967) has forged the term American civil religion.
In order to further underscore the element of inclusiveness in Obamas campaign
narrative, I will include a short comparison with the most similar previous pre-
sidential aspirant: Jesse Jackson. Jacksons two appearances at the Democratic
National Convention in 1984 and 1988 will thus be contrasted with Obamas
campaign message. I have decided upon a comparison of these two men for several
reasons, the most prominent being that both belong to the same gender, as well as
the same racial group  black or African American  as defined by the categories of
the United States Census in 2000.5 A comparison between both is also useful since
National Identities 271

Obama is considered a beneficiary of Jacksons success in previous primaries

(Atwater, 2007, p. 123; Clayton, 2007, p. 60). A comparative analysis between both
candidates may also testify to a change in America throughout the last twenty years.6
In contrast to the majority of articles that have been written on the subject of
Barack Obamas rhetoric focusing on one of his major speeches, the subsequent
rhetorical analysis will present Obamas story on American peoplehood as found in
several of his most important speeches during the primary campaign.7 This article
therefore avoids the danger of presenting citations uttered at a single occasion as
a coherent message. The analyzed speeches include, first of all, his keynote speech at
the 2004 Democratic National Convention (DNC), which earned him national
prominence. The announcement speech of Barack Obamas candidacy for the Pre-
sidency in 2007 is also important since it was the first rhetorical act in the election
process before a nationwide audience. Another great resource is the speech Obama
delivered in reaction to remarks made by his former pastor Reverend Jeremiah
Wright. In opposition to Wrights racial rhetoric, Obama formulated his vision of
a unified people to the fullest. The Memorial Day speech is interesting due to the
dates importance as a sacred day when the war dead are mourned, the spirit of
redemptive sacrifice are extolled, and pledges to American deals are renewed
(Cherry, 1998, p. 2). The speech Barack Obama gave at the DNC in 2008 as the
official nominee of the Democratic Party is analyzed in order to complete the circle
from the DNC in 2004, but also in order to be able to examine whether the narra-
tive Obama presents has changed throughout the years. The analysis will not include
any of Obamas speeches as President Elect or the new President in order to remain
within one competitive framework: the primary campaign.8
In his speeches, Obama addresses the broadest possible political coalition: all
American citizens, who pledge allegiance to the Republic, one nation, under God.
Stephanie Holmes (2008) argues that it should be considered a weakness of Obamas
rhetoric that it is agreeable to everyone. I, however, will substantiate here the claim
that by way of this agreeable narrative Obama persuades the voters to elect him
as the first African American president.9 Nevertheless, while an all-encompassing
campaign message enabled him to reach a broad constituency, the corresponding
identities and interests of the addressed certainly influenced their free decision
to vote for either of the candidates. Hence, a definite answer to the question of
why Barack Obama won the election cannot be delivered by an analysis of his
narrative only.10

Qualitative analysis of five speeches by Barack Obama

The results of my qualitative speech analysis were organized according to the two
main sources for narratives that try to constitute political membership, ethnic and
civic. This categorization goes back to Hans Kohns The Idea of Nationalism (Kohn,
2005). The validity of Kohns theoretical concept has rightly been contested (Kuzio,
2002). Despite this fact, the basic classification can be maintained for this analysis
when remembering civic and ethnic nations to be ideal types only. For the analysis of
Obamas narrative, it should be emphasized that an American national identity
drawing from civic sources is theoretically open to everyone. The notion of the
American Creed represents this ideal best. Phillip Gleason, while attempting to
272 S. Hammer

give an answer to the meaning of American citizenship, summarizes what the term
American Creed stands for:

To be or to become an American a person did not have to be of any particular national,

linguistic, religious, or ethnic background. All he had to do was to commit himself
to the political ideology centered on the abstract ideals of liberty, equality, and
republicanism. Thus the universalist ideological character of American nationality meant
that it was open to anyone who willed to become an American. (Gleason, 1980, p. 32)

Seymour M. Lipset believes, together with Samuel Huntington, that the American
nation is founded on the principles of the American Creed. Both also agree that it
is through an understanding of the American Creed that both the good and bad
in America can be explained. Lipset (1997) calls this the double-edged sword of
American exceptionalism, while Huntington (1981) speaks about the disharmony
that exists between the American ideals and reality. The American Creed is also an
example of a political myth, an effective element of narrative that I will discuss in
more detail in my analysis.
Walker Connor (1994) disagrees with the belief that a nation can be constructed
by the force of a narrative that tells a people they should come together as one
because of an idea. For Connor, as for all representatives of the ethnonationalism
school of thought, a nation only counts as such if it connotes a group of people who
believe they are ancestrally related. Nationalism connotes identification with and
loyalty to ones nation as just defined. It does not refer to loyalty to ones country
(Connor, 1994, p. xi) For an account on the American nation which follows Connors
idea see Huntington (2004). Anthony Smith (2004, p. 44; emphasis in original) argues
in agreement with Connor that: [T]he civic concept of a modern nation with its
common territory, economy, citizenship and mass educational culture often lacks or
omits the solidarity and homogeneity stressed by the ethnic concept; the modern
nation, to become truly a nation requires the unifying myths, symbols and mem-
ories of pre-modern ethnies. Smith also specifies which distinct elements function as
the foundation for national identities: the myth of ethnic election, territorializa-
tion of memories, as well as the celebration of golden ages and the idea of sacrifice
and destiny (Smith, 2005, p. 101). Rogers M. Smith, whose ideas about Stories of
Peoplehood have been drawn out in detail in the introduction, refers to these kinds of
myths as ethically constitutive stories (Smith, 2003, p. 64).
America is one of the most religious nations in the world and identifies itself also
by religious means, such as the symbolism of its civil religion. This symbolism then
carries those myths, which Anthony Smith identifies as elements of ethnies.
American civil religion is described by Robert N. Bellah (1976, p. 8) as a collection
of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in
a collectivity. This collectivity is the American nation, which gradually assumed the
traditional role of the church for most Americans (Cherry, 1998, p. 12). The cele-
bration of a unified community, the nation, symbolically represented in the flag,
demonstrates the most eminent function of civil religion: to create a common social
bond. And it is the Presidents task in fulfillment of his role as the Hohepriester
(high priest) of the American civil religion to inspire such a patriotic love for ones
nation by personal example (Vorlander, 1996).
National Identities 273

The concept of civil religion was first famously outlined by Jean Jacques Rousseau
in his The Social Contract (Rousseau, 2003). Robert N. Bellah, who adapted the
concept to the American context, summarizes Rousseaus idea as the existence of
God, the life to come, the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice, and the
exclusion of religious intolerance. All other religious opinions are outside the cog-
nizance of the state and may be freely held by citizens (Bellah, 1967, p. 5). A com-
parison with the original text is useful here. In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote:

The dogmas of the civil Religion ought to be simple, few in number, stated with pre-
cision, without explanations or commentary. The existence of the powerful, intelligent,
beneficient, prescient, and provident Divinity, the life to come, the happiness of the just,
the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social Contract and the Laws; these are
the positive dogmas. As for the negative dogmas, I restrict them to a single one, namely
intolerance: it is a feature of the cult we have rejected. (Rousseau, 2003, pp. 1501)

An element Bellah leaves out in his famous Daedalus article is the sanctity of the
social Contract and the Laws. Thus, Bellah, in his concept of American civil religion,
separates the political ethos and the religious ethos, which, according to Seymour
M. Lipset (1997, p. 61) have reinforced each other. The political ethos is then en-
closed in what has been referred to as the American Creed. In accordance with
Bellahs idea, civil religion and the American Creed, as political myth, will be ana-
lyzed separately as resources of which Obama makes use in his speeches.

The political myth in Barack Obamas campaign narrative

In 2004 Barack Obama opened the keynote speech at the Democratic National
Convention by sharing a brief version of his biography with the national audience.
By way of introduction, Obama also, for the first time, laid out his image for the
American nation. Right in the beginning of his speech, he said:

My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew
up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack. His father, my grandfather, was
a cook, a domestic servant. But my grandfather had larger dreams for his son. Through
hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place:
America, which stood as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had
come before. (Obama, 27 July 2004)

The quote exemplifies two things about the personal story and narrative of Barack
Obama. First, Obamas father was not an American by birth. In order to achieve the
inclusion of his father, and ultimately of himself, into the American nation Barack
Obama thus tells the story of his fathers life by constantly using images of a civic
version of American nationalism, such as America as a beacon of freedom and
opportunity. The focus on the individual, as well as the hindsight of the simple
upbringing of his father (the tin-roof shack resembling the idolized log-cabin) and
Barack Obama Seniors disciplined farm and school work draw from the image of
the self-made man, an idol of American liberalism.
The second part of the quote then accomplishes the inclusion of the still foreign
self-made man into the American nation. Comparing his father with so many who
had come before, Obama Senior is presented as being part of one of the fundamental
274 S. Hammer

American experiences: voluntary immigration (Walzer, 1992). Hence, Obamas

presentation of his fathers life portrays him as a member of the American nation in
thought. It is the image of the American nation representing a place of freedom and
opportunity, and the belief in this American dream or creed, which connects the
immigrant father with the native land of his son  America. It is here for the first time
that Obamas idea of an America united by a political ideology is presented.
A second aspect about this first quote is also decisive, the ethnic and racial
neutrality with which Barack Obama introduces the characters of his life story. He
simply talks about his father, or grandfather and, in this speech, continues to refer to
his mother and her parents without ever mentioning their race or ethnicity.11 While
today the biracial background of Barack Obama is a known fact for the largest part
of the American population, in 2004 most people in the audience will not have been
aware of this detail. Nevertheless, rather than presenting his family in terms of the
ethnoracial categories of American identity, Obama always introduces them as
adherents to the political principles of American nationalism. Hence, the racial lens
with which outsiders might consider Obamas candidacy is noticeably absent from
his own narrative.
An ethnic coloration of Obamas personal story is used only once in the analyzed
speeches. He talks about his black father and white mother in his A More Perfect
Union speech addressing the controversy around the remarks of his former pastor
Reverend Wright. In Philadelphia, he repeats his personal story, this time revealing
the racial heritage of his family while remaining in line with his broader narrative
that in a politically unified America anything is possible:

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised
with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Pattons
Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber
assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. Ive gone to some of the best
schools in America and lived in one of the worlds poorest nations. I am married to
a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners  an
inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces,
nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three
continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth
is my story even possible. Its a story that hasnt made me the most conventional
candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this
nation is more than the sum of its parts  that out of many, we are truly one. (Obama,
18 March 2008)

The reason why Obama only talks about race in his A More Perfect Union
speech and not in any of the other analyzed speeches might be his understanding that
his own heritage, a white mother and a black immigrant father, complicates his
positioning within the American ethnoracial pentagon, a term introduced by David
A. Hollinger (1995). Obama therefore might find the conventional racial and ethnic
vocabulary inapplicable when speaking about his personal story. The reaction is
a speechlessness which Hollinger recognizes as a prospect for a postethnic future,
which is neither anti-racial nor color-blind, but rather rejects the idea that descent
is destiny and will therefore find new ways to address ones heritage (Hollinger, 2008,
p. 1034). For Hollinger, Barack Obama is the model for this postethnic future. In his
March speech, Obama meets Hollingers expectations when he states:
National Identities 275

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We
would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending
sermons about America  to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the
point that it distorts reality. The fact is that the comments that have been made and the
issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this
country that weve never really worked through  a part of our union that we have yet to
perfect. (Obama, 18 March 2008)

Robert Terrill presents a different reading of the speech. Terrill also argues that:
Obamas speech can be understood as offering an especially potent set of inventional
resources through which we might cultivate new ways of thinking and speaking
about race and unity in America (Terrill, 2009, p. 365). Terrill then continues by
arguing that because Obama is of a biracial background himself he understands the
essential meaning of W.E.B. DuBoiss lesson on the double consciousness of blacks
in America. According to Terrill, it was this lesson Obama wanted to teach to his
audience in Philadelphia, black and white. Hence, Terrill (2009, p. 370) states that:
Obama discusses each side of the color-line, without critique; the two points of view
are allowed to exist side by side. From this analysis of the A More Perfect Union
speech, Terrill then deduces a conclusion which, I believe, would have been softened
had he compared the March speech with other campaign presentations. Terrill sum-
marizes Obamas approach to race as follows:

We must be able to imagine others as comparable to ourselves so that we might ac-

cept their points of view as justifiable and legitimate; we must be able to appreciate
the past without becoming paralyzed by it; we must be able to see ourselves as a union
without becoming essentially unified, to see that we might share a common stake without
sharing common experiences. In short, if we are to achieve a more perfect union, we
must become able to divide ourselves. (Terrill, 2009, p. 381)

If the essential idea of the March speech would be one of acceptable division of
the American people (and my reading of the speech does not verify this conclusion),
this notion would contradict all other speeches analyzed here in which Obama
presents his narrative of unity as may be exemplified by a citation from another one
of his speeches in February 2007: In the face of a politics thats shut you out, thats
told you to settle, thats divided us for too long, you believe that we can be one
people, reaching for whats possible, building that more perfect union (Obama, 10
February 2007). Criticizing Terrills concentration on Obamas race message, I want
to emphasize, in accordance with Rogers M. Smiths notion of successful narratives,
that by not addressing the issue of race explicitly in divisional terms Obama is
especially able to approach a wider constituency, which in his own words is simply
good politics (Obama, 2006, p. 247).
In the announcement speech in Springfield, Illinois, Obama does not mention
the subject of race in America. He also completely foregoes any reference to his
family, which was a characteristic element of his A More Perfect Union speech, as
well as his keynote speech at the DNC in 2004. In the announcement speech, the
examples which relate credibility to the abstract ideals that Obama holds dear are all
drawn from his own experiences, as the following quote shows:

I moved to Illinois over two decades ago. I was a young man then, just a year out of
college; I knew no one in Chicago when I arrived, was without money or family
276 S. Hammer

connections. But a group of churches had offered me a job as a community organizer for
the grand sum of $13,000 a year. And I accepted the job, sight unseen, motivated then
by a single, simple, powerful idea  that I might play a small part in building a better
America. (Obama, 10 February 2007)

Whereas in all other speeches Obamas faith in the American Creed is said to
originate from the life experiences of his family, in Springfield he does not mention
them. Rather he presents himself as a model who wants to inspire others: But the
life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is
possible (Obama, 10 February 2007). Because the announcement is supposed to
introduce him as a credible candidate for the presidency, the focus on his own
achievements is understandable.
Nevertheless, in his announcement speech, Obama also draws from the life of
another person. Instead of using anecdotes from his family, in his announcement
speech he makes three references to a historical figure, which in all other speeches is
not included: Abraham Lincoln. For example, Obama says: And that is why, in the
shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a house divided to
stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still live, I stand before
you today to announce my candidacy for President of the United States of America
(Obama, 10 February 2007).
There are several possible explanations for the inclusion of this particular his-
torical person. One reason for Obamas concentration on Abraham Lincoln as a his-
torical model might be Lincolns popularity in America (Schwartz, 2005). Relating
ones own presidential campaign to the most popular American President seems to
be a promising political strategy. A second reason why Obama concentrates on the
figure of Lincoln might be found in the distinct reflection of the president in the
American collective memory. According to Barry Schwartz (1997, p. 470): [C]ollec-
tive memory, the way ordinary people conceive the past, reflects the concerns of the
present. . . . History disenchants the past; commemoration and its sites sanctify it.
History makes the past an object of analysis; commemoration makes it an object of
commitment. Thus, the past becomes a tool, or a weapon as Arthur Schlesinger
argues (Schlesinger, 1992).
The American collective memory knows of several Abraham Lincolns, which
were all commemorated at particular times. Two of these images have always been
present: Lincoln as the Savior of the Union, and Abraham Lincoln as the Great
Emancipator. Lincolns remembrance as the Savior and as the Emancipator both link
the President with the period of the Civil War and mirror the fundamental conflict in
remembering Lincoln: Did the Great Emancipator Lincoln free the blacks because
he believed in their inherent human equality or did the politician Lincoln free the
slaves in order to save the Union? The answer to this question depends upon ones
perspective on the same act, the emancipation of slaves by ruling of the Eman-
cipation Proclamation and is thus open to interpretation (Schwartz, 1997). Since the
1990s, following the reinterpretation of the Civil War, as well as by virtue of the new
preoccupation with groups and their suffered discrimination, it is the emancipation
of the slaves for which Abraham Lincoln is mainly remembered. This dominance is
not only observable in the black population, which may relate to this representa-
tion more directly, but can be detected in the general American collective memory
(Schwartz, 2005).
National Identities 277

Contrary to the preference of todays general public for the Emancipator image,
Barack Obamas interpretation of the historical figure Abraham Lincoln seems to
emphasize the unifying mission. While Obama certainly wants to associate himself
with both the Savior Lincoln and the Emancipator Lincoln because both popular
images are of use for his campaign, it is the Savior Lincoln, rather than the Eman-
cipator which is central to Obamas own message. Lincoln saved the Union, accord-
ing to Barack Obamas interpretation, by unifying all Americans under the same
cause  the cause of promoting freedom in the world. It is thus Lincolns and
Obamas common narrative, the belief in central values inherent in the American
Creed, which saved the Union first and then freed a people.
In his announcement address, Barack Obamas vision for a more perfect union
in todays America frames his speech. Right in the beginning he states:

No, you came here because you believe in what this country can be. In the face of
war, you believe there can be peace. In the face of despair, you believe there can be
hope. In the face of a politics thats shut you out, thats told you to settle, thats divided
us for too long, you believe that we can be one people, reaching for whats possible,
building that more perfect union. (Obama, 10 February 2007)

Substantiating this national image, he later on refers to Abraham Lincoln

Thats what Abraham Lincoln understood. He had his doubts. He had his defeats. He
had his setbacks. But through his will and his words, he moved a nation and helped free
a people. It is because of the millions who rallied to his cause that we are no longer
divided, North and South, slave and free. Because men and women of every race, from
every walk of life, continued to march for freedom long after Lincoln was laid to rest,
that today we have the chance to face the challenges of this millennium together, as
one people  as Americans. (Obama, 10 February 2007)

At the end of the speech, Obama closes the rhetorical frame of his announcement
by repeating his central message of unity: By ourselves, this change will not happen.
Divided, we are bound to fail. . . . That beneath all the differences of race and region,
faith and station, we are one people (Obama, 10 February 2007). Once more, as
support for Obama story, Lincoln is cited: As Lincoln organized the forces arrayed
against slavery, he was heard to say this: Of strange, discordant, and even hostile
elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought to battle through
(Obama, 10 February 2007).
The remaining question is why Barack Obama makes repeated use of Abraham
Lincolns standing in the American collective memory only in his announcement
speech, but not in any of his other speeches? The announcement speech seems
a strategically well chosen moment to introduce Barack Obama through Abraham
Lincoln. By recalling Lincoln from the American collective memory, a stamp of
credence is transferred onto Obamas campaign. In addition, Lincolns historic
achievement of uniting the American people at a moment of dire crisis provides
credibility to Obamas own vision of a renewed unification of the same people. In the
later speeches, Obama needs to put his own project into the foreground, hence
a concentration on Lincoln gives way to a focus on Barack Obama and his own project.
It is the vision of a nation, the unum, defined by the belief in political principles,
which runs like a red line through all speeches by Barack Obama. Three years before
announcing his own run for the presidency, Obama famously explained: [T]heres
278 S. Hammer

not a liberal America and a conservative America  theres the United States of
America. Theres not a black America and white America and Latino America and
Asian America; theres the United States of America (Obama, 27 July 2004). Four
years later, at the speech which would carry his vision in the title A More Perfect
Union, Obama stated: But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the
idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts  that out of many, we are truly
one (Obama, 19 March 2008).
As part of the Memorial Day speech, Obama spelled out more extensively what
kind of band it is that will bring together all Americans:

What [American soldiers] sacrificed for  what they gave all for  is a larger idea  the
idea that a nation can be governed by laws, not men; that we can be equal in the eyes of
those laws; that we can be free to say what we want, write what we want, and worship as
we please; that we can have the right to pursue our own dreams, but the obligation to
help our fellow Americans pursue theirs. (Obama, 26 May 2008)

At the DNC in 2008, Obama turns his vision of a united nation into a promise 
the American promise  a term he uses 32 times throughout the address, and defines
in the following way:

What is that American promise? Its a promise that says each of us has the freedom to
make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have the obligation to treat each
other with dignity and respect. Its a promise that says the market should reward drive
and innovation and generate growth, but that businesses should live up to their
responsibilities to create American jobs, to look out for American workers, and play by
the rules of the road. Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our
problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves  protect us
from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our
toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and science and technology. . . . Thats the
promise of America  the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise
or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brothers keeper; I am my
sisters keeper. (Obama, 28 August 2008)

This promise stands for Obamas image of an American nation, his political myth.
Only by electing Barack Obama as the new President would America then be able to
see this promise of civic unity fulfilled.
The idea of a more perfect union or the uniting of all Americans as one people,
or one nation, can thus be found in all the examined speeches. This vision of an
American nation, which Obama holds dear, is intensified throughout the five scru-
tinized speeches to the extent that it embodies a political myth, I argue. It thus con-
stitutes a grand narrative (Munkler, 2002, p. 730).12 At the center of Barack
Obamas political myth stands the faith in the American Creed and its liberal and
republican values. The decision to employ a political myth based on the idea of the
American Creed might have been influenced by the existing popularity of the myth.
Richard Hughes (2004), for example, identifies the myth of the American Creed as
the foremost American myth, owning an established place in the American collective
Herfried Munkler (2002, p. 731) argues that faith in a political myth is often
fortified through sanctification of eminent historical figures or by commemorating
a canonical text which stood at the beginning of a state or nation. The formerly
National Identities 279

discussed references to Lincoln, especially in his role as the unifier, can thus be
interpreted as part of the solidification of Barack Obamas own political myth. The
Declaration of Independence, as well as the United States Constitution, the found-
ing documents of the American state and nation, are also commemorated in the
speeches. At the DNC in 2004 Obama states:

Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation, not because of the height of
our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy. Our pride is
based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred
years ago, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That
they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are
life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That is the true genius of America, a faith in
the simple dreams of its people, the insistence on small miracles. (Obama, 27 July 2004)

At his announcement speech in Springfield, Illinois, Obama makes a reference to

the Constitution and the founding generation: The genius of our founders is that
they designed a system of government that can be changed. And we should take
heart, because weve changed this country before. In the face of tyranny, a band of
patriots brought an Empire to its knees (Obama, 10 February 2007).
The Constitution is also remembered in the March speech, entitled A More
Perfect Union in accordance with the first lines of the prized document:

We the people, in order to form a more perfect union. . . . Of course, the answer to the
slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution  a Constitution that
had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that
promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be
perfected over time. And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver
slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full
rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were
Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part  through protests
and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedi-
ence and always at great risk  to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and
the reality of their time. (Obama, 18 March 2008)

The myth Obama creates throughout his speeches is successful in achieving all
three aims Herfried Munkler identified for this element of narrative: the complexities
of American nationalism are reduced to one single source  the faith in the American
Creed. In addition, Obama tells the story of the American nation as orientated
towards the fulfillment of the promise of the American Creed. The loyalty of the
American public is thus concentrated onto the American Creed and upon Barack
Obama as the candidate who will lead the nation towards its own destiny. The trust
bestowed upon Barack Obama, expressed in the numbers of people who voted for
him in the primary process and in the actual national election, might therefore be
explained by virtue of his political myth (Munkler, 2002, p. 731).

Civil religious elements in Barack Obamas narrative

Civil religion is the ethnic source of American nationalism that is present in all of
Barack Obamas speeches. The introduction or closure of a political speech with
reference to God is the classical example of civil religion. Obama only once in all of
280 S. Hammer

the examined speeches  in his announcement address  starts off with such a phrase:
Praise and honor to God for bringing us together today (Obama, 10 February
2007). Nonetheless, he does not finish off the same speech with the usual: May God
bless you, and may God bless the United States of America  a ritual he conforms to
in almost all of his other speeches.
Obamas A More Perfect Union speech is the exception to the rule of ending or
beginning a political speech with a ritual phrase reflecting the idea of civil religion.
Jonathan Alter, who analyzed the March speech for Newsweek, believed that by
refraining from using the civil religious code God bless America, the speech gained
authenticity. Since Obama outlined his nuanced view on race in the speech, his
argument was underlined by taking a varied and less symbolic approach to American
patriotism as well (Alter, 2008). Nonetheless, one clear instance of civil religion can be
identified in the A More Perfect Union speech when Obama states: But I have
asserted a firm conviction  a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the
American people  that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial
wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more
perfect union (Obama, 18 March 2008). The citation is especially valuable in its
exemplification of the inseparable connection between religion as faith in God and as
faith in ones country, combined in the idea of civil religion. It is this link which turns
atheists into outsiders in one of the most religious countries in the world.
The main focus of the concept of civil religion is the idea of patriotism, as love
for ones country, which results from the new unity of the two sovereigns: God and
the people. Obama addresses the concept of patriotism in his 2008 speech at the
DNC as well:

So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so
does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be
Democrats and Republicans and independents, but they have fought together and bled
together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red
America or a Blue America  they have served the United States of America. . . . We all
put our country first. (Obama, 28 August 2008)

In the quote he refers to two central implementations of the abstract concept of

civil religion in the American context: the celebration of the flag, and the commem-
oration of those virtuous citizens who died in the name of their country.
Memorial Day, the national holiday remembering the fallen soldiers of past
battles every last Monday in May, is one of the vital traditions in American civil
religion. Thus, the speech Obama gave in New Mexico on that day represents an
invaluable possibility to illustrate the influence of civil religion on his narrative
further. In it, he says, for example: I know that our sadness today is mixed with
pride; that those weve lost will be remembered by a grateful nation; and that our
presence here today is only possible because your loved ones, Americas patriots,
were willing to give their lives to defend our nation (Obama, 26 May 2008). A little
further down, Obama continues with the words:

And yet, at one moment or another, they felt the tug, just as generations of Americans
did before them. Maybe it was a massacre in a Boston square; or a Presidents call
to save the Union and free the slaves. Maybe it was the day of infamy that awakened
a nation to a storm in the Pacific and a madmans death march across Europe. Or
National Identities 281

maybe it was the morning they woke up to see our walls of security crumble along with
our two largest towers. (Obama, 26 May 2008)

Later on in his speech on Memorial Day, Obama exemplifies the crux of civil
religion in the following words:

Its not simply an unflinching belief in our highest ideals. Its that in the thick of battle,
when their very survival is threatened, Americas sons and daughters arent thinking
about themselves, theyre thinking about one another; theyre risking everything to save
not their own lives, but the lives of their fellow soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines.
And when we lose them  in a final act of selflessness and service  we know that they died
so that their brothers and sisters, so that our nation, might live. (Obama, 26 May 2008)

Without the faith drawn from an ethnic source of nationalism  in this case civil
religion  it is not understandable why anyone would want to willingly risk their
life for a nation or state which is based upon a common belief in the universal
principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The celebration of Memorial
Day, in conclusion, should be acknowledged as part of the ritual sacralization of
the American nation. It is also illustrated in the Pledge of Allegiance, or in the
phrases God Bless America and In God We Trust. These are clear examples of the
influence of civil religion on American nationalism and verify its status as a par-
ticular source of American nationalism.
The term hope ran like a red thread through the five speeches analyzed here.
In all but one of the addresses (the Memorial Day speech), Obama utters the word
hope several times. Deborah Atwater (2007, p. 123) argues that hope is the central
element of Obamas rhetoric and binds all pieces of his narrative together in order
to resemble a coherent message. I agree with her that the notion of hope entails the
idea to believe in the American dream, as is exemplified by a citation from the
A More Perfect Union Speech: I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in
history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time
unless we solve them together  unless we perfect our union by understanding that
we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes (Obama, 18 March 2008).
Nonetheless, I also consider the reference to hope to contain further civil religious
meaning. It was during his first national speech act, at the DNC 2004, that Obama
introduced hope as an essential part of his message:

In the end, thats what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cyni-
cism or a politics of hope? John Kerry calls on us to hope. John Edwards calls on us
to hope. Im not talking about blind optimism here  the almost willful ignorance that
thinks unemployment will go away if we just dont talk about it, or the health care crisis
will solve itself if we just ignore it. No, Im talking about something more substan-
tial. Its the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of
immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely
patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworkers son who dares to defy the odds;
the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place
for him, too. The audacity of hope! In the end, that is Gods greatest gift to us, the
bedrock of this nation; the belief in things not seen; the belief that there are better
days ahead. (Obama, 27 July 2004)

It is especially the final part of the quote that clarifies that an understanding of
the meaning of hope can only be found in the concept of civil religion. Hope as
282 S. Hammer

Gods greatest gift to us and hope as the bedrock of this nation inhabits all ele-
ments of civil religion that have been previously discussed. The phrases also relate
once more to civil religions inseparable connection between religion and patriotism.
The other phrases in the quote  the hope of immigrants setting out for distant
shores as well the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs  can
also be read as a reference to the civil religious myth of America as a chosen people
(Bellah, 1967). The phrase the audacity of hope, which would also become the title
of Obamas second book, exemplifies the link between civil religion and Christianity.
The expression is clearly not only referring to civil religion and its inherent hope for
a better American, but it is also a reference to the Christian faith as Obama took the
phrase from one of the sermons of his Christian pastor Reverend Wright, who is
believed to have borrowed it from Martin Luther King Jr (Mendell, 2007).

Comparative analysis: Barack Obama versus Jesse Jackson

In order to prove my argument that the characteristic element of Barack Obamas
campaign narrative is its address of the broadest constituency, an American political
people sanctified by a civil religion, I will compare his rhetoric with Jesse Jacksons
remarks at the DNC in 1984 and 1988.
Jesse Jackson begins his convention speech in 1984 in the traditional civil
religious manner: Tonight we come together bound by our faith in a mighty God,
with genuine respect and love for our country, and inheriting the legacy of a great
Party, the Democratic Party, which is the best hope for redirecting our nation on
a more humane, just, and peaceful course (Jackson, 18 July 1984). Starting with an
address to all Americans who share a faith in God, Jackson then parts from the
unifying imagery and clarifies which political side he is on. Throughout his speech he
will then defend the idea that only by electing a Democrat into the White House will
hope prevail.
For a comment made during the DNC, this seems a little surprising. Nonetheless,
Obamas vision of one American people even transcends political lines, as he made
clear in his 2004 address of the same partys convention:

The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red
States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But Ive got news for them, too. We
worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we dont like federal agents poking
around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and
have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and
patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars
and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. (Obama, 27 July 2004)

These differences in approaching the American constituency, with the one arguing
for a nation that is unified somehow, but nevertheless conscious about its deep
divisions, versus the other who celebrates the unity and overcomes past divisions,
exemplify the broader friction between Jacksons and Obamas stories.
A closer look at the central images of both speakers further demonstrates this.
In both 1984 and 1988 Jesse Jackson speaks about the American flag resembling
a rainbow and the American nation matching the notion of a quilt. The American
nation modelled after a quilt or a rainbow would then certainly establish an unum,
but the pluribus remains highly visible. In 1984 Jackson says:
National Identities 283

Our flag is red, white and blue, but our nation is a rainbow red, yellow, brown, black
and white and were all precious in Gods sight. America is not like a blanket, one piece
of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like
a quilt: many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together
by a common thread. The white, the Hispanic, the black, the Arab, the Jew, the woman,
the Native American, the small farmer, the businessperson, the environmentalist, the
peace activist, the young, the old, the lesbian, the gay, and the disabled make up the
American quilt. (Jackson, 18 July 1984)

The single fact holding the patches or pieces of this quilt together, the common thread,
is expressed in terms of the public religious dimension (Bellah, 1967, p. 4)  civil
religion. However, in 1984, Jackson also tries to validate his idea of America as
a rainbow by using religious remarks that violate the rules of the American civil
religious tradition by repeatedly referring to Jesus instead of God: [A] word which
almost all Americans can accept but which means so many different things to so
many different people that it is almost an empty sign (Bellah, 1967, p. 3). For
example, he states:
We are often reminded that we live in a great nation and we do. But it can be greater
still. The Rainbow is mandating a new definition of greatness. We must not measure
greatness from the mansion down, but the manger up. Jesus said that we should not be
judged by the bark we wear but by the fruit that we bear. Jesus said that we must
measure greatness by how we treat the least of these. (Jackson, 18 July 1984)

The connection of Jacksons campaign narrative with Christian religion may be

explained by an observation Veronika Caspers made when analyzing the rhetoric of
Jackson. She noted that in 1984 Jackson still acted like a preacher who attempts to
become a politician (Caspers, 2003, p. 89). Also, Jacksons speech functioned as an
official apology for a racial slur the pastor had used to address the Jewish
community.13 His repeated references to the Judeo-Christian tradition must therefore
be considered in this context. Unlike Obama, whose speeches echo his hopeful
message of unity, Jacksons speech in 1984 may be summarized as picturing America
as a quilt made up of patches of the desperate, the damned, the disinherited, the
disrespected, and the despised, who are restless and seek relief, but justice will
only come through morally guided leadership, recruited from Jacksons own Rainbow
coalition (Jackson, 18 July 1984).
In 1988, Jackson still makes use of the notion that America should be considered
a quilt:

America is not a blanket woven from one thread, one color, one cloth. When I was
a child growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, and grandmamma could not afford a
blanket, she didnt complain and we did not freeze. Instead she took pieces of old cloth
patches, wool, silk, gabardine, crockersack, only patches, barely good enough to wipe
off your shoes with. But they didnt stay that way very long. With sturdy hands and
a strong cord, she sewed them together into a quilt, a thing of beauty and power and
culture. Now, Democrats, we must build such a quilt. Farmers, you seek fair prices
and you are right but you cannot stand alone. Your patch is not big enough. Workers,
you fight for fair wages, you are right but your patch labor is not big enough. Women,
you seek comparable worth and pay equity, you are right but your patch is not big
enough. Women, mothers, who seek Head Start, and day care and prenatal care on the
front side of life, relevant jail care and welfare on the back side of life, you are right but
your patch is not big enough. Students, you seek scholarships, you are right but your
284 S. Hammer

patch is not big enough. Blacks and Hispanics, when we fight for civil rights, we are
right but our patch is not big enough. Gays and lesbians, when you fight against
discrimination and a cure for AIDS, you are right but your patch is not big enough.
Conservatives and progressives, when you fight for what you believe, right wing, left
wing, hawk, dove, you are right from your point of view, but your point of view is not
enough. But dont despair. Be as wise as my grandmamma. Pull the patches and the
pieces together, bound by a common thread. When we form a great quilt of unity and
common ground, well have the power to bring about health care and housing and jobs
and education and hope to our Nation. (Jackson, 19 July 1988)

And while in 1984 he did not substantiate the idea of the common thread binding the
patches together, in 1988 his address to the DNC focuses on the idea of a common
ground  a term he uses 19 times in his speech. The commitment to the common
ground then moves Jacksons America away from earlier days of division:
Weve come to Atlanta, the cradle of the Old South, the crucible of the New South.
Tonight, there is a sense of celebration, because we are moved, fundamentally moved
from racial battlegrounds by law, to economic common ground. Tomorrow well chal-
lenge to move to higher ground. Common ground. Think of Jerusalem, the intersec-
tion where many trails met. A small village that became the birthplace for three great
religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Why was this village so blessed? Because it
provided a crossroads where different people met, different cultures, different civiliza-
tions could meet and find common ground. . . . Take New York, the dynamic metropolis.
What makes New York so special? Its the invitation at the Statue of Liberty, Give me
your tired, your poor, your huddled masses who yearn to breathe free. Not restricted to
English only. Many people, many cultures, many languages with one thing in common:
They yearn to breathe free. Common ground. (Jackson, 19 July 1988)

Later on he continues: When we divide, we cannot win. We must find common

ground as the basis for survival and development and change and growth. This idea
of the common ground resembles Barack Obamas political myth of America, which
may overcome hardship by making use of the American promise of equal oppor-
tunity to a great extent. Jesse Jackson also validates his vision by references to iconic
imagery such as the inscription on the Statue of Liberty and the American crucible
which turns immigrants into citizens. What his speech lacks is a reference to a unify-
ing American icon, a model, like Obamas reference to Lincoln. Jackson rather
exemplifies the dark side of the American Creed by referring to Martin Luther King,
Rosa Park and the four darling little girls [who died] in a church in Birmingham,
Alabama (Jackson, 19 July 1988).
There is one last difference between Barack Obamas campaign narrative and
Jesse Jacksons final message in 1988. Rogers M. Smith, in laying out his theory of
Stories of Peoplehood, underlined that in order to find the greatest possible following
in the addressed audience, a narrative needs to serve two purposes: first present
a story of peoplehood with which the addressed can identify; and second, present
yourself as a member and leader of that group. Only then will your narrative be
successful. The second condition, especially, depends on the introduction of your
personal story as an example, but also in order to function as a model. Obama
presents himself as a member of the American nation as imagined by his own
narrative. He even states that: [M]y story is part of the larger American story, that
I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country
on earth, is my story even possible (Obama, 27 July 2004). Thus, Obamas story
National Identities 285

becomes a model for all those who believe in the American promise  that promise
that has always set this country apart  that through hard work and sacrifice, each
of us can pursue our individual dreams but still come together as one American
family, to ensure that the next generation can pursue their dreams as well (Obama,
28 August 2008).
In his second address at a Democratic National Convention, Jesse Jackson also
tells his audience about his story:

I have a story. . . . When I was born late one afternoon, October 8th, in Greenville, South
Carolina, no writers asked my mother her name. Nobody chose to write down our
address. My mama was not supposed to make it, and I was not supposed to make it.
You see, I was born of a teenage mother, who was born of a teenage mother. I under-
stand. I know abandonment, and people being mean to you, and saying youre nothing
and nobody and can never be anything. I understand. Jesse Jackson is my third name.
Im adopted. When I had no name, my grandmother gave me her name. My name was
Jesse Burns til I was 12. So I wouldnt have a blank space, she gave me a name to hold
me over. I understand when nobody knows your name. I understand when you have no
name. I understand. I wasnt born in the hospital. Mama didnt have insurance. I was
born in the bed at [the] house. I really do understand. Born in a three-room house,
bathroom in the backyard, slop jar by the bed, no hot and cold running water.
I understand. Wallpaper used for decoration? No. For a windbreaker. I understand. Im
a working persons person. Thats why I understand you whether youre Black or White.
I understand work. I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I had a shovel
programmed for my hand. My mother, a working woman. So many of the days she went
to work early, with runs in her stockings. She knew better, but she wore runs in her
stockings so that my brother and I could have matching socks and not be laughed at at
school. I understand. At 3 oclock on Thanksgiving Day, we couldnt eat turkey because
momma was preparing somebody elses turkey at 3 oclock. We had to play football to
entertain ourselves. And then around 6 oclock she would get off the Alta Vista bus and
we would bring up the leftovers and eat our turkey leftovers, the carcass, the cranberries
around 8 oclock at night. I really do understand. (Jackson, 19 July 1988)

In this quote Jackson certainly tells an American story. He talks about the hard
worker and remembers a Thanksgiving family dinner in order to remind people that
he is a self-made man as well. Nevertheless, what he really understands is the feeling
of having been left out of the American promise. Hence, with his story he seems to be
saying that he made it despite of the country he grew up in. Obama instead makes
clear to us that he is up their on stage because of the true genius of America, a faith
in the simple dreams of its people, the insistence on small miracles (Obama, 27 July

Conclusion: Its the narrative, stupid!

Barack Obama undertook the difficult task of formulating a narrative that would
lead as many Americans as possible to elect him as their presidential candidate for
the Democratic Party because they believed his story to be an authentic expression of
his own biography, but also a reflection of their own experiences. The speech analy-
sis showed that Obama succeeded in constructing such a coherent narrative. The
fundaments from which he builds all of his speeches are his personal biography,
narrated from an ethnically and racially neutral position and his political myth of
a unified American nation, bound by nothing but a common faith in the political
286 S. Hammer

principles of the American Creed and a belief in the sacredness of the American
nation. It is especially the sanctification of the American nation by virtue of a civil
and thus unifying religion that Obama makes use of in order to inspire a faith into
his vision of an American nation. Hence, in his speeches, he already demonstrates
his ability to fulfill the task of the high priest of the American nation. He also
demonstrates that a persuasive narrative not only relies on a common ideal of shared
political principles, but also employs ethically constitutive stories.
A comparison between the speeches at the DNCs in 2004 and 2008 has proven
that the foundation of Obamas narrative, his political myth substantiated by virtue
of civil religion, remain the same throughout the years. And while Obama in 2004
presented John Kerry as a good republican citizen fit to lead the country, in 2007 he
steps forward as a model citizen himself in the speech announcing his own run for the
presidency. In addition, the hope for a better America, which Obama expressed in
2004, develops into a promise he gives to the country in 2008. The content of the
hope and promise remains the same: unity. The comparison between Obama and his
predecessor Jesse Jackson has proven that the fundamental difference between both
candidates narratives lies in the greater inclusiveness of Obamas story, which opens
a whole new range of voters to him.
The vision of a united America that dominates Obamas narrative should be
considered as a strategy. Reflecting on Rogers M. Smith once more, it clearly images
all Americans, defined by legal status, as a nation. It thus addresses the broadest
possible coalition, the complete citizenry, to vote for Barack Obama as President.
The second essential component of his narrative  civil religion  enables him to
confer depth and meaning to his national image without excluding a large consti-
tuency by his choice of an ethnic story.
And while my analysis concentrated on speeches presented by candidate Barack
Obama, President Barack Obama clearly remains true to his campaign narrative, as
some citations from his inaugural address and his first State of the Union exemplify.
During his inauguration ceremony he stated:

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over
conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances
and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have
strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time
has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit;
to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed
on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free,
and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness. (Obama, 20 January

In the same speech, he also said:

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation
of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every
language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted
the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter
stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday
pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our
common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in
a new era of peace. (Obama, 20 January 2009)
National Identities 287

Even in his first State of the Union address, which, in accordance with Article
II, Section 3 of the Constitution, is meant to recommend policies to Congress and
therefore employs a different language, Obama reflects on his campaign narrative

Abroad, Americas greatest source of strength has always been our ideals. The same is
true at home. We find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise
enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that were all created equal; that no matter
who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law you should be protected by it;
if you adhere to our common values you should be treated no different than anyone else.
(Obama, 27 January 2010)

In addition, he finishes his address in congruence with his campaign speeches, but
also in accordance to the civil religious tradition of the American presidency: Lets
seize this moment  to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our
union once more. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of
This article argues that, apart from other factors, the narrative presented thro-
ughout a political campaign is a decisive element for a successful run. A successful
narrative then needs to reflect an image of the national community that is broad
enough for the leader to gain a majority following, but also intimate enough to
invoke a feeling of authenticity and exceptionalness in the addressed group. In
addition, the leader needs to personally reflect the evoked image. The analysis of five
speeches given by Barack Obama during his primary campaign affirmed that his
narrative rose above all these challenges. And while the actual effect of the narrative
on the elections outcome cannot be proven here, it can be assumed that it must have
played a significant role, especially in a campaign for a candidate whose oratorical
skill triumphed over his political experience.

1. See De las Casas (2008) for a debate about the positive influence of nationalism.
2. For an overview of the current debate on nations and nationalism, see Calhoun (2008).
3. Throughout this article, the terms stories and narrative will be used interchangeably
to express persuasive rhetorical accounts of political membership.
4. Especially in the case of the American political system, an imbalance exists between the
amount of literature published in reference to the rhetorical presidency (Tulis, 1988) and
the attention paid to rhetorical style throughout the campaign for the presidency.
5. For a critical discussion of the meaning of Barack Obamas blackness, including an
interesting account of the differentiation between cultural and political identity, see
Walters (2007).
6. See Johnson (2008) for a discussion of the ahistorical nature of the old black American
narrative of victimization.
7. Examples for articles which concentrate on one major speech are: Frank and McPhail
(2005); Frank (2009); Atwater (2007); Terrill (2009); Rowland (2007); Sharply-Whiting
8. The speech analysis concentrates on speeches from the primary campaign because it is
during this period that Obama introduces and develops his central message of unity. After
becoming the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, this message remains the
same, as will be exemplified in this articles conclusion.
9. Smith (2003, p. 43) emphasizes the nature of stories which constitute membership as persuasive.
10. For a state-by-state analysis of the election results, see Chuck (2009).
288 S. Hammer

11. For a more detailed analysis of the DNC 2004 speech with an emphasis on the racial
rhetoric, see Frank and McPhail (2005).
12. George Lakoff also acknowledges that in his speeches Obama lays out a moral guide
for the American people and refers to this guide as the Obama Code: The Code is his
most effective way to bring the country together around fundamental American values. . . .
The Obama Code is both moral and linguistic at once. The President is using his enor-
mous skills as a communicator to express a moral system (Lakoff, 2009).
13. The incident that caused this apology was later referred to as Hymietown. For more
information see Caspers (2003, 82ff).

Alter, J. (2008). Ringing the bell: What Obamas speech says about the man who gave it.
Newsweek, 28 March.
Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origins and spread of
nationalism, 2nd edn. London: Verso Press.
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Barak Obama speeches

Acceptance speech, Chicago, Illinois, 4 November 2008. Transcript: http://www.washingtonpost.
com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/05/AR2008110500013.html?nav hcmoduletmv
A More Perfect Union, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 18 March 2008. Transcript: http://www. of presidential can-
didacy, Springfield, Illinois, 10 February 2007. Transcript:
290 S. Hammer

Inaugural address, Washington, DC, 20 January 2009. Transcript:

Keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, Boston, Massachusetts, 27 July 2004.
Speech at the National Democratic Convention, Denver, Colorado, 28 August 2008. Transcript:
State of the Union address, Washington, DC, 27 January 2010. Transcript: http://www.
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