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Université Paris 7 Diderot Institut Charles V - UFR d'études anglophones


Obama’s 2008 Campaign Speeches

Rhetorical and Prosodic Perspectives

Mémoire présenté pour l'obtention du Master 2 Recherche en linguistique anglaise Sous la direction de M. le professeur Nicolas Ballier Année universitaire 2010-11

Soutenu le 28 juin 2011 Jury :

Agnès CELLE, professeure à l‟université Paris Diderot - Paris 7 (examinateur) Nicolas BALLIER, professeur à l‟université Paris Diderot - Paris 7 (directeur)

“If only I could just find the right words. […] With the right words, everything could change.”

Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father (New York City: Three Rivers Press, 2004, 2 nd edn), p.106.


My most important intellectual debt goes to Professor Nicolas Ballier who has assisted me with precious advice and many encouragements all along. He provided me with excellent guidance. His useful comments opened new and essential directions and oriented me toward key-references. May he also be thanked for carefully reading the final draft and suggesting ways of improving it.

I would also like to thank all those who indirectly influenced this work,

whose analyses provided thought-provoking insights into Obama‟s rhetorical and oratorical characteristics. Their names can be found in the References section and throughout this dissertation.

I believe it is fitting to add a few words on the person whose voice

inspired this work: President Barack Obama. It has been both intellectually stimulating and personally fascinating to work on his 2008 campaign speeches.

I would finally thank my parents, my brother Giovanni and my friends for their support all along.









1. Obama the political rhetorician


1.1. Structure of Obama‟s speeches


1.1.1. Analysis of the stump speech and of its evolution


1.1.2. The height of the primary campaign


1.1.3. Specific speeches


1.1.4. From the Whistle-Stop Tour to the Inauguration


1. 2. Epideictic oratory in Obama‟s speeches

1.2.1. The opponents


17 Targeting anonymous groups

17 Hillary Clinton

17 John McCain


1.2.2. Praise of America and Americans

1. 3. The rhetorical proofs at play in Obama‟s speeches



1.3.1. Obama on Obama


1.3.2. The appeal to emotions


1.3.3. The minor use of arguments


1.4. The flourishing rhetorical imagery and characteristic stylistic devices




Obama the modern politician


2.1. Obama the storyteller



Prefabs based on the personal narratives of anonymous Americans



The Ashley Baia story



Obama‟s personal narratives


2.2. Forging unity through words


2.2.1. Redefining America‟s national identity


2.2.2. Use of the personal pronoun “we” (and possessive determiner “our”)

53 Determining who “we” refers to

53 Opposing “we” to “they”

55 Shifting back and forth between “we” and “I”


2.2.3. The functions of the toponyms


2.2.4. A post-racial discourse?


References to race prior to “A more perfect union”


“A more perfect union”


What the tone reveals beyond the message


2.2.5. The manifold parallels with Lincoln

71 Non-verbal references

72 Verbal references


3. Obama the Preacher

3.1. The influence of black church rhetoric

3.1.1. The structure and main components of the sermon




A clearly defined yet not-so-rigid pattern


Obama‟s rhetorical frame: where the religious meets the political


The nature of religious discourse in black churches


3.1.2. Using the motifs and stylistic devices used in sermons

85 The use of repetition

85 The use of hypotyposis


3.1.3. Looking at the world through the prism of Black Church values

3.2. Acting as a preacher



3.2.1. The building-up of a crescendo in the overall structure


3.2.2. Adopting the techniques of the Black Church

96 The tone of a preacher

96 Call-and-response



3.3. Echoing MLK


3.3.1. Using MLK‟s words


3.3.2. Sounding like MLK?














Fig.1 Presentation of Ashley Baia at Dr King‟s Church (January 20, 2008) – PRAAT, p.68.

Fig.2 Presentation of Ashley Baia in “A more perfect union” (March 18, 2008) – PRAAT,


Fig.3 Equilibrium and tricolon (Announcement Speech, Springfield, February 10, 2007) PRAAT, p.87.

Fig.4 Ebenezer 1 PRAAT, p.93.

Fig.5 Ebenezer 2 PRAAT, p.93.

Fig.6 Ebenezer 3 PRAAT, p.94.

Fig.7 Ebenezer 4 PRAAT, p.95.

Fig.8 Prosograms of how Blacks and Whites pronounce yes we can, p.98.

Fig.9 Prosograms of four of Obama‟s utterances of “yes we canduring the New Hampshire Primary Night Speech (Nashua, January 8, 2008), p.99.

Fig.10 They said 1 Iowa Caucus Night Speech (Des Moines, January 3, 2008) PRAAT,


Fig.11 They said 2 Iowa Caucus Night Speech (Des Moines, January 3, 2008) PRAAT,


Fig.12 They said 2 Iowa Caucus Night Speech (Des Moines, January 3, 2008) PRAAT,


Fig.13 Prosograms: Barack Obama and Martin Luther King‟s utterances of “We cannot walk

alone, p.110.



“On the shoulders of giants” 1

George Washington‟s lofty rhetoric helped lend dignity to the American presidency, a then fledgling institution. The U.S. Presidents that have left greater imprints in collective memory have often been both great leaders of action in times of crisis and skilful masters of oratory. 2 Elvin T. Lim, Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, analyzed the steady decline of presidential rhetoric up to George W. Bush, using the readability tests for example to show that presidential rhetoric had become simpler over the years. 3 Good orators have not vanished but skillful rhetoricians have given way to skilful performers, like Ronald Reagan who was known as the Great Communicator. Barack Obama came as a watershed after the spate of lexical gaffes of his predecessor in the White House. With his widely acclaimed 2004 Keynote Address at the Democratic National Convention to support John Kerry‟s run for President, Obama gained public recognition and came to symbolize a

1. The phrase was originally used by Bernard de Chartres and taken up by Isaac Newton. It was used by Barack

Obama in the speeches he delivered on January 20, 2008 at Dr King‟s Church and at the NAACP Convention on July 17, 2009.

2. It was not the case however for Thomas Jefferson, who was a bad public speaker. Interview of Allan Metcalf,

Professor of English at MacMurray College and author of Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, July 2004), 3. Elvin T. LIM, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp.19-39.


clear break from the noted decline in political rhetoric. The sharp contrast between Bushisms and Obama‟s soaring rhetoric is even more striking as it opposes two very different types of discourse: spontaneous speech and carefully written campaign speeches.

Scores of articles dealing with Senator Barack Obama‟s rhetorical skills were published during the 2008 presidential campaign. Since 2004, Barack Obama has stood out on the national stage as a man of words. His eloquence has been both an object of praise and an easy target for his opponents during the campaign. Hillary Clinton and later John McCain criticized the “empty words” 4 which acted as a smokescreen for his lack of experience 5 or accused him of plagiarizing. 6 Despite those repeated accusations, many commentators insisted that it was precisely Obama‟s way with words that proved decisive in both the primary campaign and the national presidential election. 7 It was precisely because Obama had little national experience that he had to rely on his rhetorical and oratorical skills. As Gerald Shuster from the University of Pittsburgh explained, “The only way he can convince people that he can become president is his rhetoric. What other opportunity does he have?” 8

The process of spoken identification is often seen as a crucial parameter in voters‟ decision to support a given candidate. It also tells a lot about the extent to which candidates have to adapt to woo certain sections of voters. This somehow represented a major obstacle for Obama as his well-spoken style made him appear too remote and aloof from the less educated, poorer sections of the American society. In an article published in The Sunday Times about how Obama was regarded by poor whites, the Democratic candidate‟s “liberal bullshit” (as one of the interviewees put it) was considered more damaging to him than his

4. Obama counterattacked at the height of the Primary season, “John McCain and Senator Clinton echo each

other in dismissing this call for change. They say it is eloquent but empty, speeches and not solutions. And yet, they should know that it's a call that did not begin with my words.” Texas and Ohio Primary Night (San Antonio, March 4, 2008).

5. Alec MacGILLIS, “Finding Political Strength in the Power of Words”, The Washington Post, February 26,

2008. The ideas were taken up by CBS: “Obama‟s most powerful weapon: words”, CBS, February 26, 2008.

6. Hillary Clinton heavily insisted on Obama‟s use of Governor Deval Patrick‟s phrases to denounce his lack of

originality, “If your candidacy is going to be about words, then they should be your own words. […] Lifting

whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox.Alec MacGILLIS, op. cit.

7. “There have been many controversial aspects to this presidential election, but one thing is uncontroversial:

that Obama‟s skill as an orator has been one of the most important factors perhaps the most important factor

in his victory.” Charlotte HIGGINS, “The new Cicero”, The Guardian, November 26, 2008. See also Henry

ALLEN, “His Way With Words: Cadence and Credibility”, The Washington Post, January 20, 2009: “As much as anything else, Obama won the presidency with words.”

8. Quoted in Alec MacGILLIS, op. cit. See also David REMNICK in The New Yorker: “Barack Obama could

not run his campaign for the Presidency based on political accomplishment or on the heroic service of his youth. His record was too slight. His Democratic and Republican opponents were right: he ran largely on language, on the expression of a country‟s potential and the self-expression of a complicated man who could reflect and lead that country.” David REMNICK, “The Joshua Generation, The New Yorker, November 17, 2008.


race. Another explained that Bush had been popular among them because “he looks as dumb as we feel. When you see a president who looks aw-shucksy about everything, you kinda like that around here.” 9 For reporter Kent Garber, that identification with Bush “[had] less to do with the content of [his] words and more to do with his style that Texas twang, those folksy vowels.” 10 This sense of “artificial” belonging explains why Hillary Clinton decided to lower the level of her English. Obama, however, did not make the same choice. According to studies, Clinton and Obama scored very differently on the readability tests. 11 Clinton wished to sound more like the voters she was targeting and that explained the support she garnered from working-class women. As Connie Schultz pointed out, “she looked like them and, often, sounded like them.” 12

Political speeches are often collectively drafted. It is obvious that campaign speeches are not the products of a single man. Major politicians work with a team of speechwriters. This raises the question of authorship, which is to determine to what extent the voices of ghostwritersoverlap that of the politician. In the case of Barack Obama, his closest speechwriter for the 2007-2008 campaign was Jon Favreau. As Favreau confided, writing for Obama was more a matter of writing with Obama or even letting Obama write the major speeches himself:

What I do is to sit with him for half an hour,Favreau explains. He talks and I type everything he says. I reshape it, I write. He writes, he reshapes it. That's how we get a finished product. It's a great way to write speeches. A lot of times, you write something, you hand it in, it gets hacked by advisers, it gets to the candidate and then it gets sent back to you. This is a much more intimate way to work.13

Writing in The Washington Post, Eli Saslow commented on their special bond, the two men have formed a concert so harmonized that Favreau's own voice disappears.” 14 This dissertation will not focus on the question of authorship, which would appear more relevant if Obama was not working so closely with his speechwriters. In such a case, the politician would be essentially a performer.

9. Tony ALLEN-MILLS and Nina BERMAN, “How Barack Obama can win over poor whites” The Sunday Times, August 3, 2008.

10. Kent GARBER, “Rhetoric and Speaking-Style Affect the Clinton-Obama Race”, U.S. News, March 25,


11. Jim TANKERSLEY, “To working-class, Clinton talks the talk”, The Chicago Tribune, March 31, 2008.

12. Connie SCHULTZ, “Obama and Working-Class Women”, The Nation, June 26, 2008 and also in “Will

Obama pass the Waitress Test?” The Nation, 14 July 2008. See also Tony ALLEN-MILLS and Nina BERMAN, “How Barack Obama can win over poor whites” The Sunday Times, August 3, 2008 and Sylvie LAURENT, “Barack Obama peut-il séduire la classe laborieuse blanche ?”, ESPRIT, October 2008. 13. Quoted in Richard WOLFFE, “In His Candidate‟s Voice”, Newsweek, January 6, 2008, Favreau mentions in the article that the Announcement Speech was e-mailed to him by Obama at 4 a.m. the day it was delivered.

14. Eli SASLOW, “Helping to Write History”, The Washington Post, December 18, 2008.


Obama‟s speeches are powerful because of the impressions that they arouse: “Barack Obama bringeth rapture to his audience. They swoon and wobble, regardless of race, gender, or political affiliation, although few understand exactly why he has this effect on them.” 15 There is now a widely-held view that his oratorical talent and rhetorical skills (even if combined to those of others) largely contributed to his electoral victory. It is indeed impossible to dissociate the rhetorical skills from the oratorical talent displayed by Obama, though some have sometimes played down one aspect. 16 Well-written speeches need to be well-delivered in order to be most effective and convincing. The object of this dissertation is to analyze both aspects of Obama‟s speeches by combining a rhetorical analysis with a study of Obama‟s spoken style. For both, the question of influences proves crucial. A first series of articles like Charlotte Higgins‟s widely publicized analysis depicting Obama as a “new Cicerofocused on Greek and Roman influences to account for Obama‟s rhetorical skills. 17 A second series of articles clearly departed from this approach and put forward more typically American roots. This second approach emphasized the pastoral tradition which resonates in Obama‟s speeches and the influence of historic figures like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King whose words and ideas are often echoed in Obama‟s speeches. For a man whose key-word in the campaign was “change” and who symbolizes change by the very color of his skin, it is worth analyzing which traditions he seeks to break with or pursue and what makes him such an acclaimed orator.

The corpus under scrutiny is made up of a wide selection of Obama‟s speeches delivered during the campaign, from his Announcement Speech on February 10, 2007 on the steps of the Old Capitol in Springfield to his Inaugural Speech on January 20, 2009. In addition to the key-speeches such as the New Hampshire speech (“Yes We Can”) or “A more perfect union”, I chose to include speeches delivered in front of highly partisan audiences (the Jefferson Jackson dinners organized by the Democratic Party) as well as those delivered in symbolic circumstances (in Martin Luther King‟s church to celebrate the anniversary of King‟s birth or during the Whistle-Stop Tour staged to prepare his arrival in Washington a few days before the Inauguration). The reader will find an annotated timeline at the end of the

15. Jack SHAFER, “How Obama Does That Thing He Does”, Slate, posted on 14 February 2008.

16. Says Ms Ekaterina Haskins, professor of rhetoric at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York:

"I've been going through his speeches textually. The text alone cannot tell us why they are so powerful, it is

about delivery." Quoted in Stephanie HOLMES, “Obama: Oratory and originality”, BBC News, posted on November 19, 2008,

17. Charlotte HIGGINS, op. cit.


dissertation 18 indicating all the major speeches of the campaign. This analysis of Obama‟s campaign speeches also focuses on the stump speech, that is to say the standard form that Obama delivered across the country hundreds of times and which he knew by heart while the others were generally read from a prompter. 19 A DVD with all the speeches selected (transcripts, audio and video files) is provided at the end of the dissertation, in the back cover.

This dissertation will be divided into three parts, all aimed at characterizing Obama‟s speeches in terms of rhetoric and oratory, gauging the extent of the various traditions that influence and inspire Obama. The first part will focus on Obama as a political orator to determine the extent of classical influences, as much in terms of structure, components and style. The second part will concentrate on Obama as a modern American politician as he often resorts to storytelling, 20 a now characteristic feature of American political discourse, and as he develops a rhetoric of unity inspired by Lincoln and crossing party and racial boundaries. The third and final part will seek to determine the influence of the African American Church and what his rhetoric and oratory owe to the black pulpit tradition.

18. See pp.120-2.

19. Alec MacGILLIS, op. cit.

20. Developed by Ronald Reagan, storytelling consists in the use of narratives as a political tool. It has mostly

been used to illustrate Conservative values. See Yves CITTON, Mythocratie: Storytelling et imaginaire de gauche (Paris: Editions Amsterdam, 2010), p.68. During a campaign, politicians use stories “about the nation, its difficulty, and, most of all, about themselves” to persuade “those who have the power to elect them. […] They connect a politician with both the issues of his time and with the hearts and minds of the voters. […] The word „story‟ can refer to the course of a person‟s entire life or a single moment in that life, to factual narratives and fictitious ones, and can even suggest a lie.” Evan CORNOG, The Power and the Story: How the Crafted Presidential Narrative Has Determined Political Success from George Washington to George W. Bush (New York: Penguin, 2004), p.2.


1. Obama the political rhetorician 21

Rhetoric and oratory were developed in Ancient Times in large part because language was a major political tool in Athens‟s democracy and Rome‟s Republic. The structure of speeches was codified, the plethora of stylistic devices listed. It was a technique before becoming an art. This accounts for the number of major works devoted to the question by Greek philosophers and Roman lawyers to theorize the art of persuasion and determine what elements were more effective and which ones should be, for instance what part should emotional appeal play. Speeches were categorized according to the functions they performed:

ceremonial, judicial, political. Some of those elements have hardly changed (stylistic devices), others have had to adapt to contemporary circumstances: the political elites that Greek Citizens and Roman Senators represented have little to do with today‟s mass democracies. This part will focus on analyzing the structures of Obama‟s speeches. Then, it will concentrate on the use of epideictic oratory and the rhetorical proofs (logos, ethos and pathos) privileged by Obama. Finally, this section will be devoted to the stylistic devices that characterize Obama‟s rhetorical style.

21. For a clear yet detailed introduction to Ancient Rhetoric, see Olivier REBOUL, Introduction à la rhétorique (Paris: PUF, 2001, 4 th edn).


1.1. Structure of Obama’s speeches

I will mostly focus on the structure of the speeches, not on the designational paradigms that characterize each basic part. I will also insist on the major variation and adaptations adopted at different moments of the campaign. The adaptations consist mainly in the parts developed after the major turning-points of the campaign as was the case in February 2008 when John McCain became the presumptive Republican candidate. The major variation in his speeches consists in the change of discursive strategy he adopted in December 2007 to evoke the problems America was facing.

1.1.1. Analysis of the stump speech and of its evolution

The stump speech is the standard speech delivered by a candidate during a campaign. The structure of the stump speech has been delineated in The Washington Post by Alec MacGillis,

The basic structure of Obama's speech has remained more or less the same: a statement of why he is running now, an account of the movement the campaign is building, a subtle argument for why voters should not “settle” for Clinton, a list of the things he would do as president if you are ready for change,and finally an invocation, and rejection, of the arguments against his candidacy. 22

The argument used against Hillary Clinton is not really a distinct part in fact. Here are the five basic parts that structure most of Obama‟s stump speeches.

- Introducing the beginning of his journey and establishing his credibility: 23

It has now been almost a year, just a week short of a year, since I stood on the steps of the old state Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, the place where Abraham Lincoln served for many years before he went to Washington, the city where I served for many years before I went to the United States Senate, and announced that I was embarking on this unlikely journey.” (Barack Obama, Boise, February 2,


- The case for change:

List of problems (replaced as of December 27, 2007 by a list of narratives representing the major problems America is facing):

22. Alec MacGILLIS, “Finding Political Strength in the Power of Words”, The Washington Post, February 26,


23. Patterson CLARK and Larry NIST, “Anatomy of a Stump Speech”, The Washington Post, February 26,



All of us know what those challenges are today - a war with no end, a dependence on oil that threatens our future, schools where too many children aren't learning, and families struggling paycheck to paycheck despite working as hard as they can.(Announcement Speech, Springfield, February 10, 2007).

- What he advocates:

New politics 24 necessary (people as the catalyst for change):

We're not going to reclaim that dream unless we put an end to the politics of polarization and division that is holding this country back, unless we stand up to the corporate lobbyists that have stood in the way of progress, unless we have leadership that doesn't just tell people what they want to hear - but tells everyone what they need to know. […] I believe that Americans want to come together again behind a common purpose.” (Reclaiming the American Dream, Bettendorf, November 27, 2007).

Political agenda and ideas and argument against Hillary Clinton:

I believe that Americans want to come together again behind a common purpose. […] When I am this party‟s nominee, my opponent will not be able to say that I voted for the war in Iraq, or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran, or that I supported Bush-Cheney policies of not talking to leaders that we don‟t like.” (Iowa Caucus Night Speech, Des Moines, January 3, 2008)

- The belief in America and in the American Dream

Personal story to exemplify the American Dream and praise of America and the American spirit:

I am not a perfect man and I won't be a perfect President. But my own American story tells me that this country moves forward when we cast off our doubts and seek new beginnings.(A New Beginning, Chicago, October 2, 2007).

- Rallying cry to fight together, win together: the journey ahead. The speeches sometimes end

with a very long sentence that also encompasses the main ideas developed during the speech.

“And so tomorrow, as we take this campaign South and West, as we learn that the struggles of the textile worker in Spartanburg are not so different than the plight of the dishwasher in Las Vegas, that the hopes of the little girl who goes to a crumbling school in Dillon are the same as the dreams of the boy who learns on the streets of LA, we will remember that there is something happening in America, that we are not as divided as our politics suggests, that we are one people, we are one nation, and together, we will begin the next great chapter in America's story with three words that will ring from coast to coast, from sea to shining sea - Yes. We. Can.” (New Hampshire Primary Night Speech, Nashua, January 8, 2008)

The stump speech is basically constructed in a cyclical way with references to a journey to open and close the speech. The speech itself represents a journey through time. The introduction is about the past journey accomplished so far, including historical references while the closing sentences evoke the path ahead (use of the modal “will” or “would” in hypothetical contexts). This introduction states the purpose of the speech and sets the

24. Obama‟s case for a new politics recalls the New Coalition formed by Roosevelt in 1932. For parallels between the economic and political situations between the early 2000s and the 1930s, see Paul KRUGMAN, “Franklin Delano Obama?”, The New York Times, op-ed, November 10, 2008.


campaign into perspective, by specifying for how long he has been campaigning. It therefore clearly performs the function of an introduction as Obama starts by establishing the situation (a campaign speech by the candidate) and prepares his audience to hear the arguments to support his candidacy and oppose those of his rivals. The epilogue urges the audience to mobilize and fight for him. Hence, the outline of Obama‟s campaign speeches is very close to the classical structure of the judicial speech, which is not surprising as the judicial speech aimed at convincing an audience (judges) which is presented with two contradictory sets of arguments : the exordium which exposes what the speech is about (Obama running for President), the narratio in which Obama presents an assessment of the situation, insisting on the nature of the challenges and problems to face, the propositio in which Obama develops the change he seeks for the country and refutes his opponents‟ arguments 25 and the peroratio which ends as a call to mobilize and go ahead. Aristotle defined the excitement of emotion as one of the key-part of the epilogue. 26 Quintilian, the Roman rhetorician, also insisted on the necessary use of pathos in the concluding lines of a speech, “In the peroratio, however, we may give full scope to the pathetic.” 27 As the epilogue provides the lasting impression made on the audience, it is fundamental that it ends with electrifying emotion and a powerful dynamic rather than arguments on which people have to ponder.

1.1.2. The height of the primary campaign

On the whole, the structure of Obama‟s speeches remained fairly the same. A few variations can be noted, however. When the primaries really started in January 2008, Obama often started by expressing his gratitude to his activists and voters and then made an account of their journey together so far and of the movement built, which corresponds to the look backward that characterized his earlier speeches of the campaign. Obama also replaced the factual list of problems by a list of individual narratives to illustrate the problems America was facing. As the Primaries unfolded, the argument against Clinton related to her initial support of the war in Iraq was removed from the speeches and from early February, an

25. In judicial speeches, that part was devoted to the arguments developed to prove the guilt or innocence of the

accused. It also contained arguments to counter those of the other side.

26. Hillary Clinton generally concluded her speeches by thanking people. It usually constituted a fairly large












important section was added as to why McCain should be opposed. Obama still ended his speeches with a rallying cry and the urge to move forward but from January 8, 2008 and his defeat in the New Hampshire primary, Obama added a definition of hope and the “Yes We Can” gimmick. The pattern thus remains globally unchanged even if the main rival changes.

1.1.3. Specific speeches

Some of these speeches were delivered in the first months of the campaign, but most of them were given after the Primaries were over, when Obama was directly and solely confronted to his Republican opponent. Those speeches, which gave voters a precise and detailed idea of what he intended to do, came very late in the campaign. That delay can explain Clinton‟s criticisms of his relying on nice words for most of the primary campaign. 28

Those speeches were generally repeated several times and delineated in detail what Obama proposed to do on a given issue (the war in Iraq, 29 health care, 30 the economy, energy, 31 foreign policy, education) or as regards a specific audience (working women, veterans, African Americans, Latinos, unionists). Based on individual and/or personal examples and hence once more resorting to storytelling, Obama described various situations to show the many facets of the issue, then followed by a detailed account of Obama‟s personal record on the issue (laws he supported both in the State of Illinois and then in the U.S. Senate, personal experience), his criticism of the current legislation or situation and of his Republican opponent‟s position and past record on the issue. He then moved on to promise what he would do instead. Those speeches are often more technical, including many figures to sound more convincing. They discuss current legislation and suggest reformed or new legislation. Obama‟s past record on the issue is generally the occasion for him to praise compromise by stating what has been achieved through bipartisan consensus in the State of Illinois and in the Senate.

28. Quoting Mario Cuomo, a former Governor of New York, Hillary Clinton declared on January 6, 2008, just

before the New Hampshire Primary that “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.”

29. The War in Iraq was already specifically dealt with on October 2, 2007. The speech was delivered in De Paul

University in Illinois on the fifth anniversary of a speech he had delivered at that same university to vigorously oppose the war.

30. A first speech on healthcare was delivered on May 29, 2007.

31. A first speech on energy was delivered very early in the campaign on May 7, 2007.


When Obama addresses specific audiences, he does so in events staged by legitimate organizations representing the specific audience (NAACP for African Americans, LULAC for Latinos, AFL-CIO for workers). In these speeches, Obama focuses on the main themes of his campaign like healthcare and the economy but insists on how his audience is specifically affected by the issues. 32 When addressing ethnic communities, Obama insisted on their being Americans, not hyphenated Americans33 , stressing his leitmotif of national unity. The speeches addressing one particular issue were carefully staged as regards place and/or time. The Cost of Warwas delivered on March 18, 2008, that is to say on the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the war. The Speeches on Energy were delivered in Michigan and a large section was devoted to the car industry based in Detroit. The Speech on Education was given the day after school resumed after the summer holidays. To set out his views on foreign policy, Obama delivered a speech from Berlin, hence addressing the citizens of the world, not just Americans. Focusing on his mixed origins, Obama presents himself as a “global man”. The choice of Berlin is doubly symbolical: it is where John Kennedy had made a vibrant speech to oppose the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the city is now the symbol of a reunified Germany, proving that barriers can tumble down. Capitalizing on his worldwide popularity, he can appear as a potential statesman whose popularity benefits America and therefore helps restore Americans‟ esteem in the world.

1.1.4. From the Whistle-Stop Tour to the Inauguration

Shortly before the Inauguration, Obama undertook a journey by rail to Washington in a vintage railcar, imitating Lincoln‟s “Whistle-Stop Tour”. The symbolical journey was made on January 17, 2009. The three speeches delivered along the journey were more or less the same; the Philadelphia and Baltimore speeches were almost identical word by word. The theme of the journey was in keeping with the staging: “A new declaration of independence.” The Philadelphia and Baltimore speeches were devoted to the beginning of the American journey and experiment and focused on American core values. Then Obama told the stories of

32. See for example the drop-out rates for Latinos. Speech at the LULAC Convention (Washington D.C., July 8,


33. The expression dates back to the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, during the third mass immigration wave to America. It was disparaging at the time and used by Americans to define the “new Americans” coming from Europe: Irish Americans, Italian Americans, German Americans. Today, this kind of expression is sometimes used by a community to stress the richness of its cultural roots. This is the case of African Americans.


three ordinary Americans to illustrate the everyday problems Americans were facing. The

stories were different in each speech and the Americans mentioned were each time named.

The speeches ended with a call to perfect the union and keep the American spirit of the early

patriots alive. The speech delivered in Wilmington was more particularly focused on Joe

Biden, who boarded the train with his family there, where he lived. On the whole, the

structure remained the same as during the speeches, except for the sections devoted to his


There is a relative stability of structure in Obama‟s speeches throughout the campaign. Even the Inaugural Address starts with a glance backward: “Forty-four Americans have now taken the oath.” The end is a projected glimpse forward:

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words; with hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come; let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations. 34

This stability of the structure also reflects the stability in the ideas put forward. Obama

repeatedly insisted on the stability of his message, insisting on the same message we had

when we were up and when we were down.” 35

34. This epilogue echoes that of the Final Primary Speech, which can be found p.107. It evokes the future as a projected past. The present is seen as a moment that will go down in history, being remembered by the posterity. 35. Iowa Caucus Night Speech (Des Moines, January 3, 2008), South Carolina Primary Night Speech (Columbia, January 26, 2008), Virginia Jefferson Jackson Dinner (Richmond, February 9, 2008), Potomac Primary Night (February 12, 2008).


1. 2. Epideictic oratory in Obama’s speeches

Epideixis, also called praise-and-blame rhetoric, is to be expected in the campaigns speeches of political candidates to emphasize one‟s own assets and the opponents‟ shortcomings and flaws.

1.2.1. The opponents Targeting anonymous groups

In Obama‟s speeches, overt and harsh criticism is mainly limited to anonymous groups

of people whose precise identity is never defined: “the cynics”, the skeptics, “the pundits”,

the lobbyistsand “the special interests” in Washington. 36 Apart from “the lobbyists” and

“special interests” which can be more or less identified, “the cynics” are characterized by a

name which is already a criticism and therefore to respond to it would be to endorse the

criticism. These collective targets are characterized by their generic representation and the

quite systematic use of THE + plural NP. Hillary Clinton

As for his direct opponents, Obama opted for two different discursive strategies.

Despite his early statements that he rejected the divisive Washington way of making

politics, 37 he had to respond to the attacks leveled at him by Hillary Clinton as regards his

lack of experience; yet, the references to Clinton were rarely direct. He used

counterarguments without ever mentioning his target by name. Obama sometimes used the

generic pronoun “you” as in “But you can't at once argue that you're the master of a broken

system in Washington and then offer yourself as the person to change it.38 Yet, what people

36. The cynics and the “skeptics” are by far his most frequent collective targets. “The cynics” and/or cynicism

are mentioned in most of Obama‟s campaign speeches.

37. You know that we can't afford four more years of the same divisive food fight in Washington that's about

scoring political points instead of solving problems, that's about tearing your opponents down instead of lifting this country up.” “Our Moment is Now” (Des Moines, December 27, 2007). The reference to the scoring-point game is made repeatedly in the course of the campaign.

38. “Our Moment is Now” (Des Moines, December 27, 2007).


should really have heard was the pronoun “she”. He transformed a direct attack into a general rule of adequate political behavior, hence attacking not the person but the behavior. In other cases, Obama substituted a collective entity of Democrats who had acted like Bush‟s Republicans for his main rival, we need to ask those who voted for the war: how can you give the President a blank check and then act surprised when he cashes it?39 and “I am running for President because I am sick and tired of democrats thinking that the only way to look tough on national security is by talking, and acting, and voting like George Bush Republicans.” 40

Most of these indirect attacks took place before the primary season actually started and all dealt with the same issue: the war in Iraq. Clinton‟s error of judgment as regards the issue was the chief argument used by Obama against her. The issue was in fact less and less developed as the campaign unfolded; it was often limited to an illustration through an individual narrative and was then replaced by the economic issue which had become the voters‟ main concern. Obama‟s discursive strategy is clear: he had to attack his rival in the Democratic Primaries but neither too harshly nor too directly as he had to prepare the necessary unity of the party for when the primary season was over. In fact, Clinton was never mentioned namely until Obama‟s first defeat in the New Hampshire primary when “Senator Clintonwas congratulated on her “hard-fought victory”. She was only directly attacked with some sarcasm when she was likened to John McCain in March, as the race of the Primaries still remained very close and embittered, 41

Now, at that debate in Texas several weeks ago, Senator Clinton attacked John McCain for supporting the policies that have led to our enormous war costs. But her point would have been more compelling had she not joined Senator McCain in making the tragically ill-considered decision to vote for the Iraq war in the first place. 42

39. “A New Beginning” (Chicago, October 2, 2007). Obama delivers in that speech a fierce diatribe against the

decision made by Congress to support the executive, Obama explains that Americans were failed not only by the

president but also by “the majority of a Congress - a coequal branch of government - that voted to give the President the open-ended authority to wage war that he uses to this day. So let's be clear: without that vote, there would be no war.”

40. Iowa Jefferson Jackson Dinner (Des Moines, November 7, 2007). The argument of not having voted for the

war in Iraq is partly fallacious as Obama was not yet Senator when the vote took place in 2002.

41. The campaign was getting tougher in mid-January after mutual accusations concerning the Nevada Caucus

where the votes were not all taken into account and after Bill Clinton misrepresented Obama‟s remarks on

Reagan to imply that he supported the former Republican President‟s ideas. The tension reached a climax at a televised debate opposing the three major Democratic candidates which was organized days before the South Carolina Primary and two weeks before the often-decisive Super Tuesday. For more on the feud opposing Clinton and Obama, see Andrea MITCHELL, “Clinton, Obama Clash at S.C. Debate”, January 22, 2008, (04/11).

42. “The Cost of War” (Charleston, March 20, 2008). The speech dealt exclusively with the war in Iraq and its

various consequences.


The use of the past conditional is used to undermine her own authority to attack McCain on the issue. Obama implied that the argument was fallacious by focusing on “her point”, not on her directly and he used a comparative form, “more compelling”, which is only rhetorical precaution. In addition, Obama performed a pool trick shot as it enabled him to target both Clinton and McCain. Obama generally praises bipartisan consensus but in the case of Clinton and McCain siding together, it was Clinton who acted like the Republicans as the use of the verb “join” suggests. Yet, a few weeks later, during the transition period as the

primary campaign ended and the campaign against the Republicans was really going to start, Hillary Clinton was praised at length for who she was and what she represented. 43 Praise of Hillary Clinton evolved in nature and length by becoming longer and by shifting focus. Her personality, commitment and career were described as sources of inspiration, including for his daughters. She was in fact often reduced to that simplistic approach, presented as a symbol for women, 44 as was briefly the case in the Kentucky-Oregon Primary Night Speech on May 20,

2008 45 , in Unity on June 27, 2008 and in the Acceptance Speech on August 28, 2008 when

she was presented as “an inspiration for my daughters and yours.” It was exclusively the case in New York City during a joint meeting organized on July 10, 2008, all the more so as Obama‟s main focus that day was working women. 46 This was combined with a fairly long account of her professional career and various commitments. Clinton was praised for being a relentless fighter (the noun “fight” is often repeated) and a pioneer for other women in politics (“made history”, “barrier-breaking). 47 When Obama summarized her political career, he made a very long sentence containing a series of nominal relative clauses to define what led her on (a pseudo-cleft sentence).

But as someone who's shared a stage with her many times, I can tell you that what gets Hillary Clinton up in the morning even in the face of tough odds is exactly what sent her and Bill Clinton to sign up for their first campaign in Texas all those years ago, what sent her to work at the Children's Defense Fund and made her fight for health care as First Lady, what led her to the United States

43. Hillary Clinton was praised in five main speeches: the Kentucky and Oregon Night Speech on May 20, 2008,

in the Final Primary Night Speech delivered in St Paul on June 3, 2008, in Unity to symbolize the unity of the party on June 27, 2008, in a joint meeting held in New York City on July 10, 2008, and then briefly in the Acceptance Speech. Attacks on McCain started as of early February 2008, after Super Tuesday, when the other Republican candidates had been left lagging much behind.

44. Ironically enough, in the Final Primary Night Speech on June 3, 2008, Obama himself explained that she

could not be reduced to what she symbolized for women: “Senator Hillary Clinton has made history in this

campaign not just because she's a woman who has done what no woman has done before, but because she's a

leader who inspires millions of Americans with her strength, her courage, and her commitment to the causes that brought us here tonight.”

45. In that speech, praise of Hillary Clinton was limited to, “And no matter how this primary ends, Senator

Clinton has shattered myths and broken barriers and changed the America in which my daughters and your daughters will come of age, and for that we are grateful to her.”

46. The speech is one of Obama‟s specific speeches. See 1.1.3. Specific speeches p.14.

47. Final Primary Night (St Paul, June 3, 2008).


Senate and fueled her barrier-breaking campaign for the presidency an unyielding desire to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, no matter how difficult the fight may be. 48

The use of anaphora enables Obama to rhythmically reproduce the unflinching commitment. Using nominal relative clauses to define another such clause, “what gets Hilary Clinton up in the morning”, consists in turning around endlessly as the structures do not contain antecedents, thus building some suspense until the answer is given after a short pause, graphically represented by a dash. What makes this long sentence laudatory is the very nature of her driving-force, which is only disclosed at the very end of the sentence. The answer could have been “her ambition” without changing a single word before the pause. Interestingly enough, the section was reproduced in the speech delivered at their joint meeting in Unity, June 27, 2008 but was slightly modified and defines “her motivation” and “her passion” as what led her on. The three stages of her career that Obama mentioned are the ones she evoked in her own speeches and decided to put forward. During a fierce debate in January, Obama blamed her for sitting on the boards of major companies. 49 This is not mentioned. John McCain

It is a very different strategy used with his Republican opponent, John McCain, who was attacked directly and at length after Super Tuesday when he was so much ahead of his Republican opponents that it was clear and obvious he would be the Republican nominee. When Obama directly mentioned his Republican opponent, he referred to him by his name and surname, without mentioning his political title. John McCain, on the contrary, only referred to Obama as Senator Obama. Obama‟s discursive treatment of John McCain consisted in praising the “American hero” he “[respects]” and his years of service to the nation but criticizing fiercely the “failed policies of the past” he had supported and still supported. Praise of McCain was brief and was immediately, sometimes in the very same sentence, counterbalanced by a criticism introduced by the conjunction “but”. McCain‟s campaign was articulated on the idea that he was an independent thinker and had on occasions voted against his own party. The main point of Obama‟s campaign was to hammer in the idea that McCain was no different from Bush and that electing McCain would lead to “George

48. Final Primary Night (St Paul, June 3, 2008). 49. Michael Moore‟s Sicko accused her of having HMOs (Health Maintenance Organizations) fund her campaigns. Michael MOORE, Sicko (Dog Eat Dog Films, 2007).


Bush‟s third term” (April 14, 2008). Obama used expressions of similarity and continuity, “four more years” (March 4, 2008, April 14, 2008), “the same course” (March 4, 2008), “more of the same” (April 22, 2008), deriding the Republican Primaries as a contest to determine “which candidate could out-Bush the other” (May 20, 2008). Obama‟s neologism is patterned on Shakespeare‟s expression “to out-Herod Herod”. Using a neologism gives more weight to the criticism as it can take the audience unawares and be taken up as a sound bite by the media. The compound verb “out-Bush” is made up of the adverb “out” referring to the idea of surpassing, going beyond a limit and the proper noun Bush, whose characteristic feature is surpassed. The person whose name is used is reduced to their main characteristic feature and stands as a reference. The verb suggests that the subject-agent has surpassed the reference. In addition, the use of this verb in an indirect question is manipulative insofar as it lies in the presupposition that all the Republican candidates model themselves on Bush and therefore share the same political ideas. Obama also coined the compound-adjective “Bush- McCain” (March 20, 2008 and October 27, 2008) to define the policies led by the Republican Administration. Such a close-knit connection which is graphically represented by a hyphen suggests that McCain has been holding a major executive office in the Bush Administration. It would have made more sense if the second name was the Vice-President‟s but Obama‟s aim is not only to attack the Republicans‟ record but to convince voters that McCain should be directly blamed for it. This compound adjective reinforces the use of presuppositions which convey the idea that all the Republican candidates are Bush‟s political heirs.

To derail McCain‟s self-definition as an independent thinker, Obama used McCain‟s own words and criticisms against Bush‟s tax cuts 50 to emphasize that McCain was no longer an independent thinker and had fallen back in line. Obama started to use McCain‟s words as soon as he became the Republican nominee to show that he was now contradicting himself and endorsing policies he had previously opposed. By using McCain‟s very words, Obama skillfully made an independent McCain criticize a loyal McCain. Going further, it can also be considered that the formerly independent McCain was more in tune with Obama. From April 2, 2008, a new argument was developed by Obama after McCain admitted, “the issue of economics is not something I‟ve understood as well as I should”. 51 As voters had become

50. McCain had criticized those tax cuts because “so many of the benefits [went] to the most fortunate.” (taken

up in a speech by Obama on February 12, 2008)

51. Obama also used McCain‟s words to criticize his position regarding America‟s addiction to oil in his Speech

on Energy (Lansing, August 4, 2008).


more and more preoccupied with the economy and the bail-out, 52 Obama used McCain‟s own recognition of partial incompetence to discredit him and undermine his authority on the issue by “parroting them and turning them to his advantage.” 53 The point was made again and emphasized during the Acceptance Speech delivered at the Democratic National Convention, on August 28, 2008: “I don't believe that Senator McCain doesn't care what's going on in the lives of Americans; I just think he doesn't know.” and “It's not because John McCain doesn't care; it's because John McCain doesn't get it.” The two quotes frame a series of rhetorical questions on a hypothetical mode (use of the conditional) introduced by “why else would he” or “how else could he”, implying that McCain‟s unawareness and failure to understand are the only explanations. McCain is not only someone whose ideas were wrong but someone who was simply not fit for and up to the job.

More than blame or petty politics, the prevailing feature of Obama‟s speeches throughout the campaign is the optimism and enthusiasm that characterize them.

1.2.2. Praise of America and Americans

“There‟s no obstacle we cannot overcome. There‟s‟ no destiny we cannot fulfill.” 54

Obama‟s upbeat discourse echoes Reagan‟s 1980 campaign speeches. The positive undertones aimed at restoring Americans‟ pride and confidence in their country in a period of economic turmoil and military doubt in Afghanistan and Iraq. That is what Reagan had managed to do in 1980 by making people believe in America again after the fiasco of the American hostage crisis in Lebanon and the dull years of the Carter presidency. According to Arthur Schlesinger, “like Franklin Roosevelt, the hero of his youth, [Reagan] radiated a reassuring confidence that all contradictions would be dissolved and all difficulties overcome.” 55 That is the sort of confidence that Obama sought to inspire. Though elaborating along the lines of Reagan‟s “America is back”, Obama delineated his own distinctive praise of America throughout the campaign.

52. The comprehensive program carried out by the Federal State to save banks from going bankrupt. It cost

billions of dollars.

53. Alec MacGILLIS, op. cit.

54. Final Campaign Speech (Manassas, November 3, 2008).

55. Arthur M. SCHLESINGER, The Imperial Presidency (New York, Mariner Books, revised edition, 2004),



This question was at the very core of Obama‟s discourse in three of his speeches:

“Reclaiming the American Dream” (November 7, 2007), “Our Moment Is Now” (December 27, 2007) and “The America We Love” (Speech on Patriotism, June 30, 2008). Playing the Reagan card on patriotism, Obama stated that “America [was] the greatest country on Earth.” 56 The statement is hyperbolic in nature (use of the superlative). Yet, it is clear in the three major speeches mentioned above that for Obama, what is great in America is not only America and loyalty to the flag, it is its people and the spirit that has animated the country‟s story from its very beginning and its revolutionary genesis:

In the end, it may be this quality that best describes patriotism in my mind not just a love of America in the abstract, but a very particular love for, and faith in, the American people. […] For we know that the greatness of this country its victories in war, its enormous wealth, its scientific and cultural achievements all result from the energy and imagination of the American people, their toil, drive, struggle, restlessness, humor and quiet heroism. 57

Where others had praised the greatness of America through the greatness of its leaders, Obama shifted the greatness onto ordinary citizens, everyday heroes by becoming the storyteller of individual stories. As could be expected from a laudatory discourse, a number of positively-connoted words can be found in those few lines, mostly pertaining to the lexical field of success (“victories”, “achievements”) or that could be related to it (“enormous wealth”). He adds a long, almost never-ending series of nouns to characterize their obstinate hard work. The accumulation effect represented by the enumeration helps symbolize the unyielding and unflinching effort and was delivered with a very solemn tone. Obama also repeatedly used the superlative to describe ordinary Americans: “the most talented, the most productive workers of any country on Earth” (Last Week Speech, Canton, October 27, 2008). Even when mentioning the glorious birth of the United States, Obama did not praise the Founding Fathers but the patriots who had fought against the British Crown by using once more the superlative, “the greatest generations [who freed] a continent”. 58 The whole American history was interpreted as a succession of victorious battles:

We're the nation that liberated a continent from a madman, that lifted ourselves from the depths of a Depression, that won Civil Rights, and Women‟s Rights, and Voting Rights for all our people. 59

56. “The America We Love.” (Independence, June 30, 2008).

57. “The America We Love” (Independence, June 30, 2008). Echoes can be found in “Our Moment is Now”:

We are a decent, generous people willing to work hard and sacrifice for future generations.” (Des Moines, December 27, 2007).

58. “Our Moment Is Now” (Des Moines, December 27, 2007). The mention of “our greatest leaders” appears

only once to praise Washington‟s military achievements. It is immediately followed by a redefinition of greatness as the wisdom Washington showed when he decided not to run for a third term. “The America We Love” (Independence, June 30, 2008).

59. “Turn the Page” Speech (San Diego, April 28, 2007).


That very selective summary of American history, which included large short-cuts, contributed to depict a mythical America that stands for justice and has won over injustice. The other accounts of American history that can be found in Obama‟s speeches were developed along the same lines. 60 Obama‟s representation of American history partly focused on the same chapters as previous U.S. Presidents had done before him: the beginnings of the Republic, the Civil War and the New Deal. Obama was less eloquent on the New Deal and focused more often on the Civil Rights victories. This selective history presented episodes which could unite Americans because they are now consensual. 61 The idea was to convey a sense of progress and unity of the nation. The references chosen were also selective: MLK stood along former U.S. Presidents while Lyndon B. Johnson who was President in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed was never mentioned. 62 Johnson could not be mentioned because he was mostly associated with the escalation and quagmire in Vietnam in American collective memory. In a period of growing popular dissatisfaction with the stalemate in Iraq, Obama had better not be associated with Lyndon Johnson. Obama needed mythical figures that solely embodied progress. Apart from America‟s greatness, Obama developed the idea of its uniqueness and praised it, hence echoing the theories of American exceptionalism. 63 America‟s uniqueness was developed with two different points: Obama‟s own story and the American Dream. In his Keynote Address at the Democratic National Convention, Obama had started presenting his story as one which could only have been possible in America: I stand here knowing that my 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. 64 Obama preferred to focus on America by placing the location phrase at the beginning of the clause, to put more emphasis on the determiner “no”. Adding “on Earth” implied that the statement was made after scanning every country. Obama pursued on America‟s uniqueness with the definition of

60. See also “A New Beginning” (Chicago, October 2, 2007), Iowa Jefferson Jackson Dinner (Des Moines,

November 10, 2007), “Our Moment Is Now” (Des Moines, December 27, 2007).

61. Senator Robert Byrd, a Dixiecrat and former Klan member, exemplifies such an evolution from total

rejection of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s to a very consensual attitude, fully supporting the NAACP at the

end of his political career. He supported Barack Obama during the Primaries.

62. For Evan Thomas, the comparison between Obama and Lyndon Johnson is relevant: “Though Obama likes

to model himself on Lincoln, or perhaps FDR, another close comparison can be made to Lyndon Johnson.” Evan THOMAS, “Obama‟s Lincoln‟, Newsweek, November 15, 2008. For more parallels between Johnson and Obama, see The tone of a preacher, p.96.

63. Obama refers directly to that theory in his speech on patriotism: As we begin our fourth century as a nation,

it is easy to take the extraordinary nature of America for granted.” (Independence, June 30, 2008).

64. “The Audacity of Hope(Boston, July 27, 2004). The point is made again in “Reclaiming the American

Dream” (Bettendorf, November 7, 2007) and the Iowa Jefferson Jackson Dinner (Des Moines, November 10,



the American Dream, his own definition in fact: What is unique about America is that we want [the American dream] for more than ourselves we want [it] for other people. […] We fight for each other‟s dreams.65 By contrasting “each other” which expresses a mutual, reciprocal relationship with the reflexive pronoun “ourselves”, Obama defined American uniqueness in terms of widespread solidarity, opposing the prevailing notion of American individualism and praising a sense of national belonging. The representation that Obama offered of America each time he was defining and characterizing it was hardly realistic, overlooking long-lasting and often violent oppositions. 66 Michael Kammen defined the tendency of permanent construction and reconstruction of the past as “disremembering the past”. 67 Using advertising tips, Obama sought to present an idealistic vision of America based on hyperboles and mythical representations. The aim was to make Americans proud of their country and believe again in its intrinsic capacity to overcome the biggest challenges. And that was the sense of the yes-we-can motto which was developed after Obama‟s first defeat on January 8, 2008. The enthusiasm he sought to convey had also much to do with the future he proposed. What Obama promised throughout the campaign was to write with people “the great, next chapter in the great American story.68 Praise of American people and of a better tomorrow was recurrent all along the campaign, especially in the lyrical outbursts that could be found in the epilogues. These lyrical outbursts, in which Obama sketched the next stage in America‟s destiny, often included quotes or echoes from Jefferson, Lincoln or Martin Luther King.

Obama: “Out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.” (“The Audacity of Hope”, July 24, 2004) MLK: “It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.” (“I Have A Dream, August 28, 1963)

Obama: “usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth.” (Announcement Speech, February 10, 2007) Lincoln: “we shall have a new birth of freedom” (Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863)

Obama: “the last, best hope on Earth” 69 (Turn the Page Speech, April 28, 2007)

65. Reclaiming the American Dream(Bettendorf, November 7, 2007). The idea is developed as well in his

Acceptance Speech at the Democratic National Convention: “It is that promise that's 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.” (August 28, 2008)

66. It corresponds to Renan‟s definition of what the essence of a nation is, “Or l‟essence d‟une nation est que

tous les individus aient beaucoup de choses en commun, et aussi que tous aient oublié bien des choses.” Benedict

Andersen speaks of nations as imagined communitiesbased on the falsification of the shared memory of a people. See Luc BENOÎT À LA GUILLAUME, Le discours d'investiture des présidents américains ou les paradoxes de l'éloge (Paris : Harmattan, 2003), p.198.

67. Michael KAMMEN, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New

York : Knopf, 1991), quoted in Luc BENOÎT À LA GUILLAUME, op. cit., p.199.

68. “Turn the Page” Speech (San Diego, April 28, 2007).

69. Interestingly enough, Ronald Reagan also took up the reference in a TV speech to support Barry Goldwater

on October 22, 1967. There was just a slight variation: “the last best hope of man on Earth.”


Jefferson: “the world‟s best hope” 70 (1 st Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801) Lincoln: “the last best hope of Earth” (Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862)

Using intertextuality through “authoritative quotes” was a repetitive pattern in Obama‟s speeches which enabled him to associate himself with America‟s leading figures of the past. As Professor of Linguistics Ekaterina Haskins argues, “His speeches are shaded with subtle echoes of great speeches past, consciously creating a sense of history, purpose and continuity.” 71 All these epilogues pointed to a better, brighter tomorrow 72 ; the echoes of the great leaders of the past served to establish a connection with Obama, who wished to appear as their heir. Like Martin Luther King, Obama sought to point the direction ahead, sharing his faith in America. He used lyrical outbursts to transform the future into a “destiny” 73 (Iowa Caucus Night, January 3, 2008), and in particular a world destiny. America‟s position in the world and as the leading force of the world was frequently asserted, “on (this) Earth” and “repair the world”. To reach that goal however, America‟s self-improvement appeared as a prerequisite. The sense of destiny was constructed through a widening of the geographical perspective and with hyperboles (use of superlatives). More than a presidential election, Obama seemed to offer and promise a new national epic, as was clearly stated one week before the election:

And if in this last week, you will knock on some doors for me, and make some calls for me, and talk to your neighbors, and convince your friends; if you will stand with me, and fight with me, and give me your vote, then I promise you this we will not just win Ohio, we will not just win this election, but together, we will change this country and we will change the world. 74

According to Luc Benoît à la Guillaume, the promise of a new era is a recurrent topic in Presidential discourse especially in times of crisis, 75 even though it is hardly ever a real break with the past. 76 This was emphasized by Obama with the use of the recurrent

70. A more complex variation can be found in James Madison‟s Notes on Nullification, as he defined America as

“the last hope of true liberty on the face on the earth.” (1835-36). 71. Stephanie HOLMES, “Obama: Oratory and Originality”, BBC News, November 19, 2008,

72. Sacvan Bercovitch defined the jeremiad as the political sermon developed by American colonists: “In explicit opposition to the traditional mode, it inverts the doctrine of vengeance into a promise of ultimate success, affirming to the world, and despite the world, the inviolability of the colonial cause. […] The purpose of their jeremiads was to direct an imperiled people of God toward the fulfillment of their destiny, to guide them individually toward salvation, and collectively toward the American city of God.” Sacvan BERCOVITCH, The American Jeremiad (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), quoted in Luc BENOÎT À LA GUILLAUME, op. cit., p.74.

73. The word can be found in the Announcement speech (Springfield, February 10, 2007) and the Iowa Caucus

Night Speech (Des Moines, January 3, 2008). It can also be found often in the expression: “no destiny we could not fulfill” (“Our Moment is Now”, Des Moines, December 27, 2007; New Hampshire Primary Night Speech, Nashua, January 8, 2008 ; Wisconsin Primary Night Speech, Houston, February 19, 2008).

74. This is the very end of the speech delivered in Canton (October 27, 2008).

75. Luc BENOÎT À LA GUILLAUME, op. cit., p.199.

76. Luc Benoît à la Guillaume speaks of “a rhetoric of the fake break” (“rhétorique de la fausse coupure”). Ibid.,



expressions such as “Its time to turn the page” 77 , “We are at a defining moment in our history78 , “a moment that will define a generation” 79 or the projected retrospective glance “This was the moment when it all began. 80 References to time are essential to build up on the notion of the sacred moment, the turning-point. These lyrical outbursts were often hyperbolic in essence (“it all began”; “a contest that will determine the course of this nation for years, perhaps decades, to come” 81 ). Turning American history into an epic has been recurrent in presidential discourse and often associated with the mythical notion of the frontier 82 as developed by John Fitzgerald Kennedy for example in the 1960s with his New Frontier program. Ronald Reagan used John Withrop‟s image of “the Citty upon a hill (sic)” 83 to define his vision of America‟s destiny. 84 By praising America, Obama made his speeches more difficult to criticize. He could reach out to Democrats and Republicans alike because a section devoted to America‟s greatness is essentially and intrinsically consensual.

1. 3. The rhetorical proofs at play in Obama’s speeches

Aristotle defined the three proofs that were necessary in a political speech: ethos (character), logos (argument) and pathos (emotion). Elvin T. Lim holds a Platonician view of what a political speech should include, “We expect political leaders to prioritize logos.” 85 He deplores that today‟s presidential rhetoric is “short on logos, disingenuous on ethos and long

77. Announcement Speech (Springfield, February 10, 2007) and “Turn the Page” Speech (San Diego, April 28,


78. Iowa Jefferson Jackson Dinner (Des Moines, November 10, 2007). The expression is used throughout the

campaign: “Our Moment is Now” (Des Moines, December 27, 2007), Iowa Caucus Night Speech (Des Moines, January 3, 2008), Kentucky and Oregon Night Speech (Des Moines, May 20, 2008), Final Primary Night Speech (June 3, 2008), Speech on the Middle-Class (St Louis, July 7, 2008), VP Announcement (Springfield, August 23, 2008), The American Promise (August 28, 2008), Speech on Education (September 9, 2008), Last Week Speech (Canton, October 27, 2008), Final Election Speech (Manassas, November 3, 2008), Election Night Victory Speech (Chicago, November 4, 2008).

79. Final Primary Night Speech (St Paul, June 3, 2008).

80. Iowa Caucus Night Speech (Des Moines, January 3, 2008).

81. Speech on Patriotism (Independence, June 30, 2008).

82. Frederick Jackson Douglas theorized in the late 19 th century the concept of the frontier. He defined the

essence of American identity as being rooted in the West.

83. The biblical phrase was used in 1630 by John Winthrop, a Puritan, to express the belief that Puritans were

sent to the New World by God to establish a city which the world would look at. Reagan used the expression twice, each time in a major speech: his Acceptance Speech at the Republican National Convention in 1980 and in his Farewell Speech in 1989. Interestingly enough, John F. Kennedy also used it in 1961.

84. These two notions are both congruent with John O‟Sullivan‟s concept of Manifest Destiny developed in 1845

to justify American westward expansion. 85. Elvin T. LIM, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.55.


on pathos.” 86 Manipulating the audience with emotion and a distorted self-portrait seems to have become the characteristic feature of political speech. Obama has often been criticized for his lack of detailed propositions in his speeches. Let us determine to what extent Obama actually corresponds to that now prevailing pattern.

1.3.1. Obama on Obama

For Aristotle, ethos encompasses different notions: phronesis (practical skills and wisdom) and arété (virtue, goodness). They are often all present in a political speech, but at different levels.

The major criticism leveled at Obama was his lack of political experience, especially at the national level. Indeed, Obama had been a state Senator in Illinois from 1997 to 2004, when he resigned after being elected to the U.S. Senate. Obama had therefore been a member of Congress for two years when he officially announced he had decided to run for the U.S. Presidential election. From the very beginning of his campaign, Obama needed to establish his credibility and therefore a crucial section of his speeches in 2007 consisted in putting forward what experience he had. Interestingly enough, Obama developed and used the fighting metaphor not about Iraq but about the war on poverty and discrimination. Departing from the warmongers in Washington, Obama‟s account of his experience as a community organizer echoed the rhetoric of Lyndon Johnson‟s War on Poverty. Obama insisted on his experience before the primaries started. It was especially the case in his Announcement speech, a significant section of which was devoted to developing his professional experience as a community organizer in Chicago‟s South Side and as a lawyer specialized in civil rights but also his political experience as a state Senator in Illinois. 87 From November 2007, Obama developed a rhetoric of battle and started using the verb “fight”, 88 often associated with the present perfect or HAVE+V-en and BE + Ving to establish the experience he had gained. On December 27, 2007, Obama used Bill Clinton‟s very words to counter attacks on his lack of experience. 89 This indirect attack against Hillary Clinton reflects a strategy Obama would use

86. Ibid, p.54.

87. The very place where the speech is delivered is quite significant as Springfield is the State Capital. The city

is highlighted several times with the repetitions of the expression, “It was here that […].”

88. Occurrences of the noun “fight” can also be found.

89. “The truth is you can have the right experience and the wrong kind of experience. Mine is rooted in the real

lives of the people and it will bring real results if we have the courage to change.”


even more effectively against John McCain: using an opponent‟s declaration on which he agrees but which the opponent is now attacking. In February 2008, at the height of the primary season, Obama briefly mentioned his political and/or professional experience again. He did it again in his specific speeches, when the primary season was over. In the speech delivered at the AFL-CIO, Obama used the word fight fifteen times. Obama‟s self-portrait as

a fighter somehow counterbalanced his commitment to seeking consensus. The image as

someone determined to defend his ideas whatever the obstacles was essential to establish his

credibility as a future President.

In addition to his experience and stamina, Obama boasted himself of being right from the beginning as regards the war in Iraq, unlike others: “When I am this party‟s nominee, my opponent will not be able to say that I voted for the war in Iraq.” 90 Obama insisted on his good judgment, on the right decisions he made and he was therefore the most adequate

candidate to end the war, “The first thing we have to do is end this war. And the right person


end it is someone who had the judgment to oppose it from the beginning.” 91 Barack Obama


in fact the “someone” he is talking about. “Someone” does not represent here an indefinite

individual, but is reduced with the non-defining restrictive relative clause to a very precise

individual and should be understood as “some one”. The argument is also connected to that of experience, opposing the right experience and the wrong experience. Hillary Clinton‟s error

of judgment as regards the war in Iraq was clearly the kind of experience she should not boast

about. As was developed in Hillary Clinton, the war in Iraq is the key-argument developed against Clinton whereas Obama‟s lack of experience was his opponents‟ central argument against him. By elaborating on the right kind of experience and the wrong kind of experience, Obama could connect the two issues and emphasized his clear-sightedness.

Obama also insisted on his virtue by emphasizing his lack of self-interest, which is a feature that characterizes his whole career,

I walked away from a job on Wall Street to bring job training to the jobless and after school programs to kids on the streets of Chicago. I turned down the big money law firms to win justice for the powerless as a civil rights lawyer. I took on the lobbyists in Illinois and brought Democrats and Republicans together to expand health care to 150,000 people and pass the first major campaign finance reform in twenty-five years; and I did the same thing in Washington when we passed the toughest lobbying reform since Watergate. I'm the only candidate in this race who hasn't just talked about taking power away from lobbyists, I've actually done it. So if you want to know what kind of

90. Iowa Jefferson Jackson Dinner (Des Moines, November 10, 2007).

91. “A New Beginning” (Chicago, October 2, 2007).


choices we'll make as President, you should take a look at the choices we made when we had the chance to bring about change that wasn't easy or convenient. 92

Through this self-portrait, Obama represented himself as a person free of all bonds, unconnected to any special interests, motivated by superior principles and not by self- interest. 93 This self-portrait actually consisted in a series of actions (use of action verbs), focusing both on the choices he did not make (“walked away”, “turned down”) and the successes he managed to bring about. Obama‟s whole career was reduced to a conflict between the powerful (“lobbies”, “special interests) and the “powerless” / “jobless” (using the –less suffix to emphasize the poor‟s deprivations) whom he stands for, reenacting a modern version of David vs. Goliath. He also described himself as the artisan of the legislative successes mentioned. Indeed, although he used the pronoun “we” to refer to the Democrats and Republicans who allied to pass anti-lobbying legislation, Obama had initially presented himself as the one who had made that bipartisan conciliation possible, “I […] brought Democrats and Republicans together.”

1.3.2. The appeal to emotions

Analyzing the evolution of presidential discourse, Elvin T. Lim observed that pathos had become predominant and there was even a tendency to resort to an extreme form of emotional appeal: bathos, which he defined as the references involving children and families. 94 Indeed, references to families, whether anonymous average American families or his own, are frequent in Obama‟s speeches, though not overabundant. George Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics at Berkeley, of whom Barack Obama had been a student, explained how essential family values are in American discourse,

Our national political dialogue is fundamentally metaphorical, with family values at the center of our discourse. There is a reason why Obama and Biden spoke so much about the family, the nurturant

92. “Our Moment is Now” (Des Moines, December 27, 2007). Obama‟s decision to work in Chicago‟s South

Side at the expense of the generous offers from Wall Street appeared in several speeches, in the Announcement Speech (Springfield, February 10, 2007), “Turn the Page” (San Diego, April 28, 2007), “Reclaiming the

American Dream” (Bettendorf, November 10, 2007), Super Tuesday Night Speech (St Paul, February 8, 2008), Potomac Primary Night Speech (Madison, February 12, 2008), Wisconsin Primary Night Speech (Houston, February 19, 2008) and very briefly in his Acceptance Speech (Denver, August 28, 2008).

93. The Bush Administration was fiercely criticized by its opponents for the Bushes‟ and Cheney‟s connections

to the oil industry and their direct personal economic interests in the War in Iraq. William KAREL, Le Monde selon Bush (2004).

94. Elvin T. Lim, op. cit., p.72. Lim defined that tendency as a characteristic of anti-intellectual presidential



family, with caring fathers and the family values that Obama put front and center in his Father's day speech: empathy, responsibility and aspiration. 95

Thirty occurrences of the noun family or families can be found in his speech on the economy and the middle-class delivered in July 7, 2008, and eighteen in “Reclaiming the American Dream” (November 7, 2007). There was an average of half a dozen occurrences during the height of the primary season. Obama‟s personal narratives often focused on women and more especially mothers or young women to insist on their vulnerability. 96 The references to child/children were more frequent, with an average of half a dozen approximately throughout the campaign, peaking exceptionally at forty occurrences in the speech dedicated to “A 21 st Century Education(September 9, 2008). But even when Obama spoke of children in general and used the generic expression “a child”, it is later substituted by the pronoun “she” 97 to make the story more emotional as girls are seen as being more vulnerable:

We believe that a child born tonight should have the same chances whether she arrives in the barrios of San Antonio or the suburbs of St. Louis; on the streets of Chicago or the hills of Appalachia. We believe that when she goes to school for the first time, it should be in a place where the rats don't outnumber the computers; that when she applies to college, cost is no barrier to a degree that will allow her to compete with children in China or India for the jobs of the twenty-first century. We believe that these jobs should provide wages that can raise her family, health care for when she gets sick and a pension for when she retires. We believe that when she tucks her own children into bed, she should feel safe knowing that they are protected from the threats we face by the bravest, best-equipped, military in the world, led by a Commander-in-Chief who has the judgment to know when to send them into battle and which battlefield to fight on. And if that child should ever get the chance to travel the world, and someone should ask her where she is from, we believe that she should always be able to hold her head high with pride in her voice when she answers I am an American. 98

By telling the story of this imaginary average girl, Obama could address the issues common to both men and women (racial discrimination, education, employment, safety, health care) but also the issue of sex inequality and by depicting her as a future mother, he could focus on the motherly instinct of protection. Unlike Reagan and the Bushes who insisted on a strong America and a manly approach to leadership, Obama shifted focus to domestic policies, often depicting families as matriarchies in his individual examples. In addition to making his examples more emotional, it was surely also the result of his being

95. George LAKOFF, “The Palin Choice and the Reality of the Political Mind”, posted on September 1, 2008 on

96. Interestingly enough, the three individual narratives developed in the Texas and Ohio Primary Night Speech

(San Antonio, March 4, 2004) exclusively focus on women: a “young [female] student”, a “mother in San Antonio” and an “elderly woman”.

97. The singular personal pronoun “she” has been used since the late twentieth century in academic journal

articles as a generic pronoun to counter the predominant use of the generic pronoun “he”. Obama could have used the epicene “they” but he specifically intended to develop the story of a woman here.

98. Texas and Ohio Primary Night Speech (San Antonio, March 4, 2008). Like the Ashley Baia story, this one

ended with a sentence in direct speech. See 2.1.2. The Ashley Baia story, p.44.


raised by a single mother and grandmother and a deliberate attempt to appeal to female voters who could feel closer to Hillary Clinton. 99

Obama‟s strong and laudatory emphasis on America and American values 100 should also be included in this section as they tug at the heartstrings.

1.3.3. The minor use of arguments

“The only organ to which no appeal is made these days - you might call it America‟s understimulated organ - is the brain.” 101

Obama‟s development of arguments varied along the campaign. At the beginning and almost until the late December 2007, he developed a number of fairly precise points though he remained quite general and did not delve into detail: no figures were given. It was the case in the following examples which is fairly representative:

We know that the cost of the American dream must never come at the expense of the American family. You're working longer hours. More families have two parents working. Meanwhile, it's hard to get a hand. It's even harder to get a break. That's why I'll double spending on quality after-school programs - so that you can know your kids are safe and secure. And that's why I'll expand the Family Medical Leave Act to include more businesses and millions more workers; to let parents participate in school activities with their kids; and to cover elderly care. And we'll finally put federal support behind state efforts to provide paid Family and Medical Leave. 102

Obama explained that “more businesses” and “millions more workers” would be included but no precise idea was given as to how many million workers would be concerned. What is crucial is Obama‟s determination to act personally (frequent uses of “I‟ll”). Other examples confirmed that lack of precision: “pay teachers what they deserve to be paid” 103 or “We won‟t wait ten years to raise the minimum wage – I‟ll guarantee that it goes up every single year.” 104 Obama repeated in other speeches that teachers should be paid as they

99. Fathers were specifically addressed in Obama‟s speech to the NAACP on July 14, 2008 because broken families have been a crucial problem with African Americans for generations: “what makes them men is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one.”

100. See 1.2.2. Praise of America and Americans, p.22.

101. Peggy NOONAN, Simply Speaking: How to Communicate Your Ideas with Style, Substance, and Clarity

(New York: Regan, 1998), p.70 quoted in Elvin T. Lim, op. cit., p.5. Peggy Noonan was Ronald Reagan‟s former speechwriter.

102. Reclaiming the American Dream” (Bettendorf, November 7, 2007).

103. “Turn the Page” Speech (San Diego, April 28, 2007).

104. “Reclaiming the American Dream” (Bettendorf, November 7, 2007).


deserved 105 but never specified how much that represented and obviously no one could disagree on such an assumption. It was the same with the annual raise of the minimum wage:

by not giving a precise figure as to the percentage nor on its terms, he prevented attacks on the idea.

The section devoted to Obama‟s proposals was much reduced in the first month of the primaries but was then developed again but often in connection with a detailed account of the present situation. Obama developed his plans on energy, families, the middle-class and so on in the specific speeches which were mostly given once the primary campaign was over. In those speeches, he often sounded less lyrical and more down-to-earth, giving precise accounts of his record, a detailed analysis of the situation and his precise proposals. In the following example, Obama detailed what he intended to do about Family and Medical Leave, which he had evoked in general terms at the beginning of the campaign:

It means dramatically expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act to reach millions of additional workers and I'll ensure that it doesn't just cover staying at home with a new baby, but also lets you take leave to care for your elderly parents and participate in school activities like parent-teacher conferences and assemblies. It means standing up for paid leave so I'll invest $1.5 billion to help create paid leave systems across America and I'll require employers to provide all of their workers with at least seven days paid sick leave a year. Senator McCain has no clear plan to expand paid leave and sick leave and that's a real difference in this election. Finally, we've got to do more to help folks at the bottom of the ladder climb into the middle class. 106

Obama‟s proposals usually followed McCain‟s senatorial record on the issue. Here again, Obama directly addresses the working women facing him by using the personal pronoun “you”. In both cases, Obama shifted back and forth between the pronoun “I” and the exclusive “we” which referred to his Administration. As regards the people he was talking about, Obama no longer referred to them directly but used the generic plural form (“workers”, “parents”), which sounded more inclusive.

One of the reasons Obama avoided developing precise, detailed ideas too soon in the campaign was that it might force him to readjust his ideas according to the economic evolution and that would undermine his capacity to persuade. For example, Obama had to make a U-turn on the strategic oil reserve within four weeks. 107 Obama avoided as much as possible partisan policies and advocated a consensual, bipartisan, pragmatic approach. This was at the core of his Inaugural Speech: The question we ask today is not whether our

105. “Instead of talking how great our teachers are, we will reward them for their greatness.” (South Carolina

Primary Night Speech, Columbia, January 26, 2008).

106. Speech on working women (Fairfax, July 10, 2008).

107. First opposed to utilizing the Strategic Oil Reserve except in case of emergency, Obama approved it a

month later on August 4, 2008.


government is too big or too small, but whether it works […] Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.108 Obama‟s political decisions were not motivated by ideology, but by rational thinking, promoting a politics “that favors common sense 109 over ideology” (Last Week Speech, Canton, October 27, 2008) and moving “beyond old arguments of left and right” (Speech on Education, Dayton, September 9, 2008).

More than detailed policies, what Obama mainly advocated was “a new politics” in which people and not “special interests” would have a greater say. Obama‟s focus on individual narratives, the praise of America and Americans or the bipartisan approach was more consensual and therefore more difficult to oppose for his rivals. As John McWorther pointed out, Obama followed the tendency Elvin T. Lim delineated in today‟s political discourse: he won the Democratic nomination with ethos and pathos”. 110 Unlike arguments, ethos and pathos are “largely non falsifiable” and could not be deliberated on. 111 As far as substance is concerned, Obama‟s speeches follow the anti-intellectual trend that Lim defined and characterized. What made him different, apart from the special focus on praising America, was the style he developed.

108. Obama had developed the idea in his Last Week Speech (Canton, October 27, 2008): “We don‟t need

bigger or smaller government. We need better government.” While the question of size is highly ideological as it

involves the extent of the state‟s intervention in the economy and society, the question of efficacy is highly consensual and enables Obama to skillfully evade the question of size. Using the comparative form and the key- word “government” three times gives the (deceiving) illusion that there is topical unity. For more on the shift between the November Victory Speech and the Inaugural Address, see Michael NOVAK, “Studying Obama‟s Rhetoric”, January 20, 2009.

109. Obama opposed the war in Iraq because it was a “dumb war” (Chicago, October 2, 2002); the adjective

“dumb” was used four times in that speech.

110. “[Hillary Clinton] has lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, who first electrified the electorate

with touching autobiography and comfort-food proclamations about hope and unity--that is, with ethos and pathos.” John McWORTHER, “A Rhetorical Question”, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, Issue 186, October 2008, p.45ff.

111. Elvin T. Lim, op. cit., p.55.


1.4. The flourishing rhetorical imagery and characteristic stylistic devices

Obama‟s special way with words has been the focus of many a journalist, linguist or political specialist. Charlotte Higgins deemed Obama the “new Cicero”, insisting on his frequent use of the tricolon, 112 one of Cicero‟s best known techniques. The use of the tricolon can be either microstructural or macrostructural in Obama‟s discourse. When the tricolon is found at the microstructural level, it gives a regular balance to the sentence as the three parts are usually of the same length. Besides, it is often located at the end of the sentence as is often the case with the expression: “if there are people who are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it.” 113 This example can be found with variations in a number of Obama‟s speeches. They are usually located at the end of a sentence, 114 except in the Final Primary Night Speech. The third element makes the list unequivocal. The three-part list can also be found at the beginning of a sentence, in hypothetical contexts to build up suspense until Obama delivers the apodosis which is very short in contrast and hence creates a contrast in the rhythm of the sentence as in:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer. 115

The tricolon can also be found at the macrostructural level to structure a paragraph and can be combined with anaphora as in the previous example. Here is the introduction to the Iowa Caucus Night Speech:

You know, they said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose. 116

112. Max Atkinson, a specialist in public speaking, listed about thirty three-part lists in Obama‟s Inaugural

Speech, one every thirty seconds.

113 Kentucky Oregon Night Speech (Des Moines, May 20, 2008).

114. “If we're willing to work for it and fight for it.” in “Our Moment is Now” (Des Moines, December 27,

2007); “if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it.” Iowa Caucus Night Speech (Des Moines, January 3, 2008); “No dream is beyond our grasp if we reach for it, and fight for it, and work for it.” Potomac Primary Night Speech (Madison, February 12, 2008); “if you are willing to vote for me, if you are willing to stand with me, if you're willing to caucus for me” Wisconsin Primary Night Speech (Houston,

February 19, 2008); “So I'm asking you to march with me, and work with me, and fight with me.” Speech to the AFL-CIO (Philadelphia, April 2, 2008); “if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it” Final Primary Night Speech (St Paul, June 3, 2008).

115. Introduction to the Election Night Victory Speech (Chicago, November 4, 2008).


The three-part list conveys a regular rhythm but also anticipates on the last idea as the adverb “too” which expresses excess is often associated with an infinitive clause which specifies why there is an excess. The steady rhythm is reinforced by the combination with anaphora.

Pierre Varrod in “Les trois leviers rhétoriques d‟Obama” 117 and Malcolm Kushner, author of Public Speaking for Dummies, insisted on Obama‟s use of contrasts, “In Iowa he uses contrasting opposites; that goes back to the ancient Greeks.” 118 Contrasts are a predominant characteristic of Obama‟s speeches; Varrod listed over thirty examples of

contrasting opposites in the fairly short

with the conjunction “but” or simply with a comma (orally a pause). Using contrasts allows the speaker to delay the moment before developing the idea, it generates an expectation for the audience. Pierre Varrod suggested that contrasts enable the audience to anticipate on what

is, once they know what is not. It puts the audience in a situation in which they follow the speaker‟s thought process, as was the case in the oft-repeated expression: “we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America”. 120

Inaugural Address. 119 Contrasts can be articulated

These techniques are given even more weight when they are combined, as in:

Why else would he define middle-class as someone making under $5 million a year? How else could he propose hundreds of billions in tax breaks for big corporations and oil companies, but not one penny of tax relief to more than 100 million Americans?

Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who's willing to work. 121

Those two extracts are taken from the same speech and illustrate two different ways of combining the three-part list and contrast: either contrasting the third element of the list or presenting three successive contrasting opposites. These examples are in fact not only combinations of contrasts and three-part lists, they are also combined with rhetorical

116. The tricolon actually gives way to another tricolon: But on this January night - at this defining moment in

history - you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do. You have done what the state of New Hampshire can do in five days. You have done what America can do in this new year 2008.

117. Pierre VARROD, “Les trois leviers rhétoriques d‟Obama”, ESPRIT, May 2009.

118. Malcolm KUSHNER, quoted in Jennie YABROFF, “The Mother and the Orator”, Newsweek, January 10,


119. Pierre VARROD, op. cit.

120. Election Night Victory Speech (Chicago, November 4, 2008). The opposition between Red and Blue States

and the United States of America was initially used in Obama‟s 2004 Keynote Address and was a recurrent line

in the 2008 campaign.

121. “The American Promise” (Denver, August 28, 2008).


questions and hyperbole (contrast between “hundreds of billions” and “not one penny”), lexical contrasts (“those” vs. “every”) and of course phonological emphasis with a contrastive stress on the pair of words that are opposed (“for” vs. “against” ; “help” vs. “hurt”).

Obama‟s mastery of language is characterized by the huge number of stylistic devices he uses and combines, each time with an effective purpose. They are indeed taken up by the media as sound bites. When Obama uses antonomasis by referring to Martin Luther King as “a young preacher from Georgia” 122 , he can do so because he knows that his audience will understand who he has in mind. The use of such device is possible because the audience can understand the reference. It is based on common, shared knowledge. When he uses polyptoton in his Acceptance Speech, it is to criticize John McCain‟s program and what he is supposedly really driving at: “The Ownership society but what it really means is that you‟re „on your own‟.” 123 It is the same with paronomasis, “I don‟t know about you but I am not ready to take a ten percent chance on change124 or syllepsis, “I left [Harvard] with a degree and a lifetime of debt.” 125 Obama‟s snapping remarks often made the audience laugh; humor, although it is not a predominant feature, was used effectively by Obama. Obama sometimes adds a lighter tone to his speeches, which was usually a way of sharing something with his audience, a common experience of the debts to pay or the frustration caused by the 2000 phonyelection. 126 Such remarks can be found mostly in speeches delivered in front of partisan audiences (DNC Conventions or Jefferson Jackson Dinners 127 ) and illustrate the closer proximity Obama can establish with his audience.

But establishing a direct connection with the audience was not the only purpose of the devices Obama mainly used. Max Atkinson insists on some specific rhetorical devices being used as claptraps, "using contrasts is a real winner. Research shows 33% of the applause a good speech gets is when a contrast is used.128 According to Max Atkinson, contrasts, three- part lists as well as a combination of both prove effective claptraps, hence telling the audience

122. “The American Promise” (Denver, August 28, 2008).

123. The sentence was first used at the AP Luncheon on April 2, 2008 against Bush.

124. “The American Promise” (Denver, August 28, 2008).

125. Turn the PageSpeech (San Diego, April 28, 2007).

126. During his 2004 Keynote Address while he was praising the American democracy, Obama unexpectedly

referred to the 2000 election after a significant pause: “and that our votes will be counted --- or at least, most of the time.”

127. In the Iowa Jefferson Jackson dinner, Obama joked about being the hidden cousin of Dick Cheney: Now,

here‟s the good news – the name George W. Bush will not be on the ballot. The name of my cousin Dick Cheney

will not be on the ballot. We‟ve been trying to hide that for a long time. Everybody has a black sheep in the family.(Bettendorf, November 10, 2007).

128. Quoted in Denise WINTERMAN, “Want to know how to handle all of these?” BBC NEWS Magazine,


when to applaud. 129 Atkinson has been studying claptraps in British political discourse for over two decades. Obama‟s use of those effective devices shows that he is an expert in political communication. They are not specific to him. And so it goes with the analogy with Cicero. Charlotte Higgins who considered Obama as “the new Cicero” mentions only one stylistic parallel (the large use of the tricolon) and Christophe De Voogd who wonders in the title of one of his articles if Cicero is Obama‟s speechwriter never mentions the Roman lawyer in his article. 130 For Philippe Rousselot, President of the Société Internationale des Amis de Cicéron, the two are actually rereading Cicero with Obama in mind, rather than the other way round. 131 What is sure, nonetheless, is that Obama‟s brilliant rhetoric contrasts sharply with Bush‟s style, which had contributed to lower the function to the level of ordinary citizen. Obama‟s superior rhetoric restores some distance and reinvests the function of politician with a rhetorical grandeur that helps sacralize it.

What makes the specificity of Obama‟s speeches cannot be reduced to his lofty rhetoric and abundant stylistic devices. The outline of Obama‟s speeches is rooted in classical tradition. Obama offered the vision of a new American epic that would make Americans proud of being Americans and self-confident in the country‟s ability to overcome its current ordeals. This was Obama‟s key purpose and it never varied throughout the campaign. Obama wants to place his rhetoric at a higher level than political agendas. This is also reflected by how Obama treats his direct opponents. Breaking with the usual political practices, Obama offered change in the way he thought political battles should be led. As he said in his Announcement Speech, he had learnt in the Illinois State Senate to “disagree without being disagreeable”. 132 This higher level was also strategic obviously as it kept Obama from being constantly dragged into controversies regarding specific political propositions. Yet, by many other standards, Obama proved more in tune with some prevailing features of American modern political discourse.

129. Max ATKINSON, “Rhetoric and applause in Obama‟s Inaugural Speech as a measure of what the audience

liked best”, posted on January 21, 2009 on

obamas.html. See also Peter BULL, The Microanalysis of Political Communication: Claptrap and Ambiguity

(New York: Routledge, 2003), the third chapter focuses on Atkinson‟s theory of how rhetorical devices are used to call for applause.

130. Christophe DE VOOGD, “Cicéron: „speechwriter‟ d‟Obama?: l‟éloquence revient à la Maison Blanche”,

posted on January 22, 2009,

131. “Ce n‟est pas tant Obama qui est décrypté que Cicéron qui est reconstruit.” Philippe ROUSSELOT, “Marcus Tullius Obama”, (01/11).

132. “Announcement Speech” (Springfield, February 10, 2007).


2. Obama the modern politician

As was seen in the first part, Obama sought to rise above the fray as his rhetoric suggested. Yet, he could not escape from some of the tendencies that had become most effective to attract voters like the use of pathos and ethos, which had become a characteristic of American political discourse. Another characteristic in which Obama had specialized is storytelling (which is related to pathos) as we will first see in this section. Reagan had proved what an effective tool of persuasion it could be and had inspired other American politicians to make use of stories too. In Obama‟s speeches, there was a constant movement between the particular and the generic but all tended to reflect and inspire unity. Because America is a nation of immigrants” as John F. Kennedy put it, a population officially classified according to race, the need for unity has been all the more necessary and all the more difficult to reach, especially as Republicans have sought to exploit tensions and divisions. After analyzing Obama‟s use of storytelling, this section will focus on Obama‟s discursive strategy to forge unity: his redefinition of America‟s national identity, his use of personal pronouns and toponyms, his treatment of race and the symbolical summoning up of Lincoln.


2.1. Obama the storyteller

“When I grew up and got into politics, I always felt the main point of my work was to give people a chance to have better stories.” 133

Evan Cornog, professor of journalism at Columbia University and Christian Salmon

who works at the CNRS, have analyzed the major importance taken by storytelling in political

discourse. While Cornog insists on the feature as being a characteristic of every U.S.

presidential elections, 134 Salmon coined the expressions “narrarchy” and “narrative

presidency” 135 to account for the prominence it had now reached at the expense of formulating

a detailed political agenda.

A major component of Obama‟s speeches consisted in the narratives of average

Americans representing the whole society and which reappeared from one speech to another.

According to Matt Bai, a New York Times columnist, the use of personal narratives was

directly related to the influence of Obama‟s main consultant, David Axelrod. 136 According to


“Mr. Axelrod is an advertising guy. A man who perfected the craft of encapsulating an entire life in 30 seconds, he has a gift for telling personal stories in ways that people can understand. Axelrod‟s essential insight […] is that the modern campaign really isn‟t about the policy arcana or the candidate‟s record; it‟s about a more visceral, more personal narrative.”

The strategy devised by the Obama team was to use the main tools of modern political campaigns. Storytelling had become a predominant feature of American political discourse since Reagan in the early 1980s. The personal narratives were often synthesized in one or two sentences in Obama‟s speeches and were used as leitmotifs. These prefabricated stories punctuate the campaign and the speaker knows them by heart.


Bill CLINTON, My Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), p.15.


The 2004 election, “like all the elections that have come before it , will be defined by the power of stories.”

Evan CORNOG, The Power and the Story: How the Crafted Presidential Narrative Has Determined Political Success from George Washington to George W. Bush (New York: Penguin, 2004), p.273.

135. Christian SALMON, Storytelling, la machine à fabriquer des histoires et à formater les esprits (Paris: La

Découverte, coll.“Cahiers libres”, 2007), p.124.

136. Matt BAI, “In the Clinton-Obama Race, It‟s the Pollster vs. the Ad Man”, The New York Times, March 16,

2008. This analysis was previously developed by Matt Bai on the New York Times blog, “The Caucus” on March 13, 2008.


2.1.1. Prefabs based on the personal narratives of anonymous Americans 137

Most of the prefabs originated from the stories heard in Iowa where Obama campaigned for months to win the symbolic first caucus and hence gain credibility. The first events organized in Iowa took place on the day he declared his candidacy, February 10, 2007. Obama extensively campaigned there: the Washington Post listed 174 events between February 10, 2007 and January 3, 2008, the day of the Caucus. 138 Obama first introduced personal narratives of average anonymous Americans on December 27, 2007 and this would subsequently become a characteristic feature of his speeches. Those individual narratives aimed to illustrate the problems America was facing. Yet, depending on the precise and specific function they were given in the speech, the series of prefabs could be found toward the beginning of the speech if they were solely used to illustrate America‟s problems, 139 toward the middle when they were included in the section devoted to John McCain (and sometimes Hillary Clinton) 140 and at the end, just before the epilogue if they were used to define hope and Americans‟ dreams. 141 Interestingly enough, the section was adapted to the global function it had. Hence, when the race was still particularly close in February and March 2008, it was used to fuel the criticism against John McCain and Hillary Clinton. The examples given on February 19, 2008 served to prepare the elections scheduled in Texas and Ohio two weeks later. Delivered in Texas, the speech included one example located in Ohio, one in Texas and the last one in Wisconsin as it was the day of the primaries in Wisconsin.

No mention was made of race in these examples; the special narratives from South Carolina 142 (January 26, 2008) were in fact the same ones told in Iowa on December 27, 2007. As little information as possible was given on the person portrayed: “a student”, “a woman” “a mother”, “a worker”. As the narratives were repeated, details were removed. It was in

137. These personal narratives have been listed in a table, see the Appendix, p.117.

139. “Our Moment Is Now” (Des Moines, December 27, 2007), Wisconsin Primary Night Speech (Houston,

February 19, 2008) and Speech on Health Care (Bristol, June 5, 2008).

140. Texas Primary Night Speech (San Antonio, March 4, 2008), Speech to AFL-CIO (Philadelphia, April 2,

2008) and Final Primary Night Speech (St Paul, June 3, 2008). The section fulfils an illustrative purpose in the Acceptance Speech (Denver, August 28, 2008) but as the speech is longer, it can be found toward the middle of the speech.

141. Iowa Caucus Night Speech (Des Moines, January 3, 2008), Potomac Primary Night Speech (Madison,

February 12, 2008) and Wisconsin Primary Night Speech (Houston, February 19, 2008).

142. “Theirs are the stories and voices we carry on from South Carolina. […] The Maytag worker who is now

competing with his own teenager for a $7-an-hour job at Wal-Mart because the factory he gave his life to shut its doors.” South Carolina Primary Speech (Columbia, January 26, 2008).


particular the case with Obama‟s most-frequently repeated example. The story of the young

student who had to work to help her sick sister was almost invariably included in the section

on personal narratives, often as the first or second example given. It was first mentioned on

December 27, 2007:

Just two weeks ago, I heard a young woman in Cedar Rapids who told me she only gets three hours of sleep because she works the night shift after a full day of college and still can't afford health care for a sister with cerebral palsy. She spoke not with self-pity but with determination, and wonders why the government isn't doing more to help her afford the education that will allow her to live out her dreams. 143

Details were given on when Obama met her. The story was repeated a number of times

afterward, mainly until April 2, 144 then occasionally (Final Primary Night Speech on June 3,

2008, Speech on Health Care on June 5, 2008 and Acceptance Speech on August 28, 2008).

Gradually though, the narrative was deprived of its characteristic details to ease the

identification process. The geographical indication was removed as well as the disease of the

sister. “A student from Cedar Rapids” was soon shortened to “a student” and the person hence

became emblematic: “a young student” was any student, reaching a universal status,

becoming a prototypical example. The use of the indefinite article “a” allows the extraction

from the group and lends a metonymic function of representation to the example. There was

also an evolution as regards the determiners used to refer to that individual.

(1) “a young woman in Cedar Rapids” (Des Moines, December 27, 2007). (2) “the young woman in Cedar Rapids” (Des Moines, January 3, 2008) (3) “the young woman” (Bristol, June 5, 2008). (4) “that young student” (Denver, August 28, 2008)

Obama gradually shifted from the indefinite article “a” when he first mentioned that example

to the definite article “the” to stress the anaphoric reference as the woman had been

mentioned in previous speeches, 145 and finally the deictic “that” the last time he used the

example in his Acceptance Speech (August 28, 2008). The noun phrase was always followed

by a relative clause to introduce what the problems of those persons were.

143. “Our Moment is Now” (Des Moines, December 27, 2007).

144. In the Iowa Caucus Victory Speech (Des Moines, 3 January 2008), the South Carolina Victory Speech

(Columbia, January 26, 2008), the Potomac Primary Night Speech (Madison, February 12 2008), the Texas Primary Night Speech (San Antonio, March 4, 2008) ; The Cost of War(Charleston, March 20, 2008) ; the Speech to the AFL-CIO (Philadelphia, April 2, 2008); the Final Primary Night Speech (St Paul, June 3, 2008); the Speech on Health Care (Bristol, June 5, 2008) and the Acceptance Speech (Denver, August 28, 2008). 145. Obama shifts from the indefinite article ato the definite article the”, not because he has already introduced the woman in the speech and is now going to say something else about her, but to state exactly the same things but in a later speech.


The narrative was summarized in one sentence: We're going to finally help folks like the young woman I met who works the night shift after a full day of college and still can't afford medicine for a sister who's ill.146 Obama adds the zero relative clause “I met” to establish a direct connection with the woman before the restrictive relative clause introduced by “who”. That additional information was not always included. The restrictive clause introduced by “who” in this example as well as in the other narratives contributed to define the individuals through the problems they were confronted to. Obama either used the preterit to insist on the bad turn of events that befell them or the simple present to describe their current situation. But he always portrayed them as victims even though the passive form is not always used. Even when they remained the agent of the action and subject of the sentence, their ability to act was reduced to none by the use of the modal auxiliary “can” or “could” in the negative form. 147 The conservative notion of self-help was undermined because people alone could not overcome their problems no matter how hard they tried. Using the examples of people facing several serious problems was a way to insist on people‟s vulnerability to social dysfunctions for which they were not responsible and arouse pity and empathy for them. People are never portrayed as idlers wishing to rely on the State but as individuals suffering from a series of misfortunes with which they could not cope despite their efforts and determination. In the Protestant work ethic as Max Weber defined it, people who did not work were often scorned and labeled as lazy people. Obama focused on the “deserving poor” as they were called in Victorian England.

Instead of a multiplication of narratives, Obama focused on a number of defined narratives which enabled people from different walks of life to identify at least partly with one or another of the narratives. The small number of prefabs used is directly related to the complex stories told: each narrative encompasses a number of wider issues. The student who works the night shifts illustrates the issue of students‟ living standards and the lack of financial help to support underprivileged students having to work to pay for their studies. But the story is also related to Health Care as the student also works to help her sick sister. Another frequently repeated story is that of the Maytag workers who lost their jobs because their factory was relocated overseas and were then competing with their sons for under-paid

146. Speech to the AFL-CIO (Philadelphia, April 2, 2008).

147. “There's the young woman I met who works the night shift after a full day of college and still can't afford

medicine for a sister who's ill; or the man I met who almost lost his home because he has three children with cystic fibrosis and couldn't pay their health care bills; who still doesn't have health insurance for himself or his wife and lives in fear that a single illness could cost them everything.” Speech on Health Care (Bristol, June 5,



jobs at the local store. Each problem like industrial relocation here is hence set in a wider perspective, suggesting that each problem is compounding others and that people are all interrelated by the consequences of a de-structured economy. Obama very often focused on family relationships to illustrate the effects of the lack of a reliable and comprehensive health care system or the consequences of industrial relocation. By evoking “workers competing with their sons”, Obama could insist on the absurdity of the system and its immorality as they stood in sharp contrast with Christian principles. His most-often quoted reference to the Bible was “I am my brother‟s keeper, I am my sister‟s keeper.” 148 Obama‟s individual narratives do not just show how individual Americans are affected by health care problems or the economy, they show how families are affected and metaphorically how the whole social fabric is being unraveled.

2.1.2. The Ashley Baia story 149

The Ashley Baia story is not the only one fairly long story 150 but it is the longest and it was repeated twice. The Ashley Baia story was told by Barack Obama to close the speech he delivered at Ebenezer Church on January 20, 2008. 151 The anecdote was taken up and repeated to close “A more perfect union” two months later. It is the only story to deal with interracial relationship. The original version is fairly longer than the second one, in which a number of details have been removed.

During the previous presidential election, there had been another Ashley story, which according to some had played a key-part in Bush‟s re-election. Ashley Faulkner was a sixteen-year-old young American who lost her mother in the 9/11 attacks. Her father, an outspoken Republican, took a picture of President Bush hugging his daughter to comfort her

148. Answering Cain‟s question to God: “Am I my brother‟s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).

149. We shall focus here on the structural and symbolical aspects of the story. See The use of hypotyposis p.88 for the stylistic analysis.

150. The other fairly long stories refer to a meeting Obama had unsuccessfully organized in Chicago (Super

Tuesday Speech, Chicago, June 3, 2008), the story of a letter sent to him by a little girl, Robyn (Last Week

Speech, Canton, October 27, 2008) and the encounter with a woman in South Carolina who chanted “Fired up? Ready to go?” to welcome him (Final Election Speech, November 3, 2008). Obama refers to a 106-year-old black woman, Ann Dixon Cooper, to assess the progress accomplished by the black community in his Election

Night Victory Speech. The reference to Cooper provided a frame to the story of America over the last hundred years.

151. Obama delivered a speech to honor Martin Luther King the day preceding Martin Luther King‟s Day (the

third Monday of January to celebrate King‟s birthday). Ebenezer Church was the church where King was preaching as a minister.


on May 6, 2004. The photo was soon turned into a TV ad campaign in favor of Bush and was broadcast over 30,000 times in swing states.

The unique, 60-second commercial that Faulkner's photo spawned, "Ashley's Story," blanketed swing states during the final weeks of the election. And in a campaign known for its negative tone […] the commercial, with its heartfelt 9/11 connection, turned out to be an exception: a memorable, motivating, feel-good ad. Exit poll results that indicate "moral values" was a driving force among voters […] help explain the effectiveness of the ad, which showed Bush as a protective, compassionate father figure. 152

At the same time, Democrats aired an ad featuring a 9/11 victim‟s next-of-kin “which appealed to voters' logic about the terrorist attacks, while „Ashley's Story‟ appealed to their emotions.” 153 That is a mistake Obama did not make during his campaign four years later and he chose to conclude two of his main speeches with his own “Ashley story”.

The Ashley Baia story is by far the longest story told by Obama during the campaign. It lasts approximately four minutes. Here is a transcript of the second version:

There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African- American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there. And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that's when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom. She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat. She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too. Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother's problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn't. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice. Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he's there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, "I am here because of Ashley." 154

The episode has in fact two different levels: it consists of a story embedded in another story. Obama tells the story of Ashley Baia, a twenty-three-year-old white woman who

















153. Eric BOEHLERT, op. cit.

154. “A more perfect union” (Philadelphia, March 18, 2008).


organizes Obama‟s campaign in South Carolina, in a mostly black area and who had gathered Obama‟s supporters at a roundtable to know what had led them to get involved in the campaign. The intradiegetic level consists of the story Ashley told at the roundtable, saying that when she was nine, her mother fell seriously ill (cancer), and subsequently lost her job and health care. To help her mother save money, Ashley ate relish sandwiches for a year, until her mother got better. Because of the particular construction of Obama‟s anecdote, the occurrences of speech verbs are fairly numerous and so are complement clauses. Interestingly enough, Ashley‟s personal story is framed by a speech verb followed by a complement clause, beginning with “And Ashley said that when she was nine years old […].and closing with, “And she told everyone at the roundtable […].” Ashley‟s story is important because it helps establish who she is, what kind of person she is, that is to say a sort of ordinary heroine. The mention of “everyone at the roundtable” helps shift back to the metadiegetic level, which corresponds to the roundtable discussion. The story is then told using a number of speech verbs associated to Ashley and an elderly black attending the discussion. It gives the impression that Obama is talking to his audience about something he had directly witnessed although it was not the case. 155 Obama is rewriting the anecdote, giving more focus to the two people he considers the most important: Ashley and the elderly black man. The other people present are grouped into the personal pronoun “they” and are never singled out. Their reasons for supporting the campaign are synthesized in two brief sentences, quickening the pace before arriving at the last person: the elderly black man. But before stating the elderly black man‟s reason for being there, Obama uses delaying techniques and builds up suspense. He first gives the reasons the old man does not give and which are related to the four main issues developed by Obama in his campaign: education, health care, the war and the economy. And even when he announces the answer, he delays its delivery again by giving details: “he simply says to everyone in the room, „I am here because of Ashley.‟” Obama impersonates the old man by using direct speech and thus shifting voices by using the pronoun “I”, which he had never used before while telling this story. At its very end, the story suddenly shifts from he/she/then/there to I/here/now.

Ashley and the elderly black man symbolize the beginning of a new era for Obama and they also symbolize his campaign. The elderly black man never gets named. He stands as the anonymous representative of his community, hence fulfilling a symbolical function. This anonymity gives him a generic function. He could almost be any elderly black man. For the

155. This will be discussed more at length in The use of hypotyposis p.88.


sake of the argument, he cannot be named otherwise he would become a specific old black man. The only details given to portray him are his sex, age and race, 156 which stand in sharp contrast with the physical portrait made of Ashley, a young, twenty-three year old white woman.” 157 Ashley and the old black man are direct opposites as regards sex, age and race but can see themselves in the face of the other. 158 The underlying message conveyed is that Obama‟s campaign can bring together people who could not be more different, implying that visual differences are superficial and not fundamental. By bringing together people like Ashley and the elderly black man, Obama has already managed to cross bridges; his supporters are representatives of Obama‟s America.

The anecdote is also relevant for the message it sends to white voters. If the elderly black man can speak for a white young girl and not to voice his own interests, then Obama can speak for white voters. This reversed mirror effect (white speaker to black audience vs. black speaker to white audience) raises the question of representation and disconnects it from ethnic and racial considerations. It is a crucial point for Obama who has to convince voters that he can represent them all and that he is not just the candidate of African Americans. Ashley is symbolically rewarded for her commitment by the elderly black man‟s gratitude and unexpected recognition, just as white voters might be symbolically rewarded for their commitment.

2.1.3. Obama’s personal narratives

My story is a quintessentially American story.” 159

Although Obama often repeated that the election was not about [him],160 the campaign was particularly centered on him. According to Evan Cornog, Professor of

156. Race is here used according to its American meaning and is therefore particularly relevant when discussing

American race relations and as they are represented by politicians.

157. Her physical description actually precedes her name: “There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman

named Ashley Baia who organizes for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She's been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign.”

158. Earlier in the speech, Obama had pointed at the “moral deficit”, “empathy deficit” that characterized

American society and which he defined as the “inability to recognize ourselves in one another.” Speech at Dr King‟s Church (Atlanta, January 20, 2008). David A. Frank analyzed the influence of Lévinas‟s philosophy on Obama in “The Prophetic Voice and the Face of the Other in Barack Obama's "A More Perfect Union" Address, March 18 2008”, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Vol. 12, 2009. See also “A more perfect union” p.63.

159. Associated Press Annual Luncheon (Washington D.C., April 14, 2008).


journalism at Columbia University, "Presidential life stories are the most important tools of persuasion in American political life. 161

Obama gained public recognition with the speech he delivered to support John Kerry at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The speech, entitled “The Audacity of Hope”, can be seen as the matrix to most of his subsequent campaign speeches. One of the key passages is devoted to Obama‟s personal story: his mixed roots, education and professional experience and a self-portrait as the embodiment of the American Dream. The narrative was often used during the presidential campaign but Obama also included the stories of his relatives. It was mostly the case at the end of the primaries and afterward. Like the narratives of anonymous Americans, Obama‟s own story as well as those of other members of his family enabled him to point out a number of issues: upward social mobility through hard work, single mothers, working women, health care (mother with cancer):

After my grandfather served in World War II, the GI Bill gave him a chance to go to college, and the government gave them a chance to buy a home. They moved West, worked hard at different jobs, and were able to provide my mother with a decent education, to help raise me, and to save enough to retire. 162

The narratives were often given in the same order, following the generational succession:

grandparents, then parents and finally his own story, sometimes evoking his own daughters. Obama‟s stories stood as a case for still believing in the American Dream, contrasting sharply with George Bush‟s personal story of the political dynasty. To emphasize the contrast, Obama often declared that he “was not born into a lot of money”. 163 Obama‟s personal stories were always related to a sense of progress made possible through the years by personal hard work and perseverance but also by political action and/or assistance (food stamps for his mother,

160. The expression was used in several speeches in April 28, 2007, before at the California Democratic

Convention and afterward, in the Final Primary Night Speech. This expression can be found in Obama‟s autobiography. After being congratulated by a friend shortly after he delivered his first speech, Obama told her

that he would never again make a speech because it had been pointless, “pretty words” don‟t make things change and it had just “made [him] feel important.” But his friend urged him to continue because “it [was] just not about him. It was about people who needed his help.” Barack OBAMA, Dreams from My Father, (New York City:

Three Rivers Press, 2004, 2 nd edn), pp.108-109. 161. Evan CORNOG, op. cit., p.5.

162. Reclaiming the American Dream” (Bettendorf, November 7, 2007). The stories of his relatives can be

found in “A more perfect union” (March 18, 2008), the Indiana Jefferson Jackson Dinner (Indianapolis, May 4, 2008), “The America We Love” (Independence, June 30, 2008) and the “American Promise” or Acceptance Speech (Denver, August 28, 2008). The references to his origins are sometimes reduced to his parents and his mixed origins, as in the Iowa Caucus Night Speech (Des Moines, January 3, 2008), the Potomac Primary Night Speech (Madison, February 12, 2008), the Wisconsin Primary Night Speech (Houston, February 19, 2008) and the Speech on Education (Dayton, September 9, 2008).

163. Associated Press Luncheon (Washington D.C., April 28, 2008). See also, “I was not born into money or

status.” Potomac Primary Night (Madison, February 12, 2008).


the GI Bill and the FHA loan 164 for his grandfather). Unlike the narratives of anonymous Americans which were aimed at describing the current social situation, Obama‟s personal narratives were about the past and always ended as an apology of America and indirectly the American federal government.

All the stories about Obama and about his relatives focused on a sense of sacrifice, be it a sacrifice for the country (his grandfather and his participation as a soldier in Europe or for his grandmother as a worker sustaining the war effort), for one‟s children (Obama‟s mother who raised her kids alone and Obama‟s sick father-in-law who had to work hard to support his family) or the community (Obama‟s mother though no details are provided and Obama‟s own choice to help organize destitute people in Chicago‟s South Side). Like the narratives of anonymous Americans, Obama‟s personal stories revolve around his family, which was presented as a typical, emblematic American family, a metonymy of the wider American community. References to his father were rare and brief. Obama preferred to focus on his American origins because he was raised by his grandparents but also to show that his story was deeply-rooted in American soil. His family also symbolized today‟s America when he made direct connections between today‟s individual Americans with members of his family:

drawing parallels between the young Americans who are in Iraq with his grandfather‟s participation in Patton‟s army, between a young woman who works hard and his mother‟s experience as a single mom and between women wishing to start business and his grandmother. 165

The stories of his relatives were not always told in the same way but they always focused on what they did (predominance of action verbs), never what they thought. According to the speech in which they were included, Obama was more or less concise and insisted on different details. The stories were the same but adapted to make a particular point. In “A more perfect union”, he mentioned the color of every member of his family. At the Indiana Jefferson Jackson Dinner, which is a Democratic event, he emphasized the part played by the federal government in helping his family make progress (“This is a country that…” repeated several times). The stories were basically the same but were much more detailed in the speeches devoted to praising America and American values. 166 Obama‟s own story was indeed used to stress America‟s exceptionalism as he declared emphatically and

164. The measure, aimed at helping people buy a home, was introduced at the time of the New Deal.

165. The Acceptance Speech (Denver, August 28, 2008).

166. See “Reclaiming the American Dream” (Bettendorf, November 7, 2007) and “The America We Love” (or

Speech on Patriotism, Independence, June 30, 2008).


hyperbolically, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” 167 Obama sought to present his story as a quintessentially American one, with the upward mobility as in Horatio Alger‟s typical rags-to-riches stories.

Perhaps to counter attacks on his lack of patriotism and on his being a true American, Obama rewrote the family‟s story into a typically American myth with the move westward, the hard work and the progress made despite the odds and circumstances. His relatives were depicted as everyday heroes. 168 His grandmother‟s prejudices against blacks were only mentioned in “A more perfect union” when he had to dent the clear-cut image he had previously given of her, insisting on her bias against young black men and her stereotypes. It was the first time Obama mentioned what his grandmother thought and “uttered” instead of solely focusing on what she did.

Christian Salmon defined Obama‟s story as a “global hero” whose story was embedded in American history:

David Axelrod has built a true legend: that of a global man in a global world. He staged the journey of the hero: from Hawaii, through Djakarta, Los Angeles, Chicago to Washington. It is also a journey through time, punctuated by references to Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King which make him part of American history. 169

Thanks to his journey through space and time and his biracial roots, Obama can bridge gaps between races, places, times and embody unity, hence giving more weight to his call for national unity. Precisely because Obama is a metaphor of America‟s core values and notion of progress, he helped rebuild and revive America‟s fundamental beliefs, 170 which explains why his personal story as well as that of his family were given such focus in his speeches. Yet,

167. “A more perfect union” (Philadelphia, March 18, 2008). The declaration echoes one he had made in “The

Audacity of Hope” (July 27, 2004). Obama said on January 3, 2008 that his “story could only happen in the

United States of America.”

168. Indeed, Obama defines his relatives as being his “heroesin his Acceptance Speech (Denver, August 28,


169. “David Axelrod, son conseiller a créé une véritable légende: celle d‟un homme global à l‟ère de la

globalisation. Il a mis en scène le voyage du héros : Hawaï, Djakarta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington… C‟est aussi un voyage dans le temps, jalonné par les références à Abraham Lincoln ou à Martin Luther King qui l‟inscrivent dans l‟histoire américaine.” Interview of Christian Salmon to Sophie BOURDAIS, “Obama, c‟est l‟art du storytelling porté à son incandescence, Télérama, posted on November 21, 2008,

170. “Obama tend à une Amérique désorientée un miroir où se recomposent des éléments de sens fragmentés

depuis le 11 septembre. Obama constitue un événement symbolique au sens strict. C‟est-à-dire un événement non pas „fondateur‟ ou „historique‟ mais „séminal‟, performatif.” […] Obama incarne une nouvelle génération d'hommes politiques qui méritent d'être qualifiés de sémio-politiciens, porteurs de signes, vecteurs de signes Christian Salmon interviewed by Marjorie PAILLON and Julien LANDFRIED. Posted on June 6, 2008 on (


unity was not only evoked through symbols, it was the whole purpose of his campaign and the main object of his discursive strategy.

2.2. Forging unity through words

2.2.1. Redefining America’s national identity

“Out of many we are truly one.” 171

As we have seen in 1.2.2 Praise of America and Americans, Obama devoted large sections of his speeches to praise America and the American spirit but he also redefined American identity. The use of the BE copula is paramount in such contexts of (either positive or negative) definition and redefinition. The matrix for all his speeches is the keynote address he delivered at the 2004 DNC Convention. It is in that speech that his definition of American identity can first be found:

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America. The pundits - the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. 172

Obama rejected the divisions as being un-American, “This is not America. This is not who we are.” 173 To establish this sense of unity, Obama insisted on a rhetoric of unity, by combining the verb “to share”, the adjective “common”, the adverb “together” or the quantifier “all” which abolishes all differences. It was the case in particular in the Announcement Speech

171. The sentence was first used in “The Audacity of Hope” (Boston, July 27, 2004) and again in the 2008

campaign, generally in the epilogue: South Carolina Primary Night Speech (Columbia, January 26, 2008),

Potomac Primary Night Speech (Madison, February 12, 2008), “A more perfect union” (Philadelphia, March 18, 2008) and in “The American Promise”(Denver, August 28, 2008).

172. “The Audacity of Hope” (Boston, July 27, 2004).

173. “A New Beginning” (Chicago, October 2, 2007).


(February 10, 2007) in which Barack Obama declared that he would be running for President. It was also the case in the speech in which Obama sought to redefine the American Dream 174 and in the speech delivered after the first highly symbolical victory in the Iowa caucus. Obama offered a consensual definition of what bound Americans together, the American Dream was redefined as being not just an individual pursuit but a collective pursuit: “Because in this country, that dream is worth fighting for - not just for ourselves, but for each other.” 175 In the epilogue, Obama also insisted on collective responsibility as being the essence of American identity,

America is the sum of our dreams. And what binds us together, what makes us one American family, 176 is that we stand up and fight for each other's dreams, that we reaffirm that fundamental belief - I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper - through our politics, our policies, and in our daily lives. 177

Americans are interconnected and depend on one another as in one huge “family”: “fight for each other‟s dreams” and “I am my brother‟s keeper, I am my sister‟s keeper.” Redefining American identity as being an essentially collective enterprise 178 enabled Obama to redefine the American Dream along progressive lines and assert that the values people label with the L-word are actually American values.” 179 This allowed Obama to include episodes of workers‟ collective action as being fundamentally American, while they were seen by conservatives as socialist anti-American actions. 180 “I” is only used and defined in its interrelation with others. Obama insists on reciprocal responsibility with the use of the compound pronoun “each other” and the genitive used in a sentence with generic meaning, 181 “I am my brother‟s keeper”, which implies that “he is my keeper.”

Obama‟s definition of American identity and as a corollary of American patriotism is based on core values that are moral and consensual, not partisan. One of Obama‟s most

174. “Reclaiming the American Dream” (Bettendorf, November 7, 2007).

175. “Reclaiming the American Dream” (Bettendorf, November 7, 2007). See p.24 for the analysis of the

contrast between “ourselves” and ”each other”.

176. The expression is used in The American Promise” (or Acceptance Speech): “It is that promise that's

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.”

177. “Reclaiming the American Dream” (Bettendorf, November 7, 2007).

178. According to Gary Wills, a US journalist and historian, this reflects an approach which is typical of the

Black Church. Gary WILLS, “Two Speeches On Race”, The New York Review of Books, Vol.55, No.7, May 1,

2008. For more on this, see 3.1.3. Looking at the world through the prism of Black Church values p.89.

179. George LAKOFF in David WINER, “Obama as told by George Lakoff”, The Huffington Post, posted on

180. “It was the call of workers who organized.” New Hampshire Speech (Nashua, January 8, 2008). “It's what

sent my grandfather's generation to beachheads in Normandy, and women to Seneca Falls, and workers to picket

lines and factory fences.” Kentucky Oregon Night Speech (Des Moines, May 20, 2008)

181. The pronoun Ihere has a generic meaning and represents anyone.


frequent sentences to define Americans was: “We are one nation, all of us proud, all of us patriots.” 182 This is another way to define Americans, using the copula BE to equate the plural “we” to the singular “one nation”, which symbolizes unity. Moving beyond the question of patriotism used by the Republicans to define who is and who is not American, Obama delineated a definition of the nation that is closer to the French Republican definition than the traditional American one. 183


determiner “our”)






“we” Determining who “we” refers to



“I believe in the power of the American people to be the real agents of change in this country.” 184

Among the other discursive strategies to create unity through words is the use of the personal pronoun “we”. As Vanessa Beasley points out, the use of the personal pronoun “we” is directly connected with the performative function of creating a sense of national unity: “For there to be an American nation, or an American „we‟, or even an American presidency at all, U.S. presidents must find ways of breathing life into the otherwise abstract notion of American political community.” 185 This “oracle effect” as Bourdieu defines it 186 is given special prominence in Obama‟s speeches because of the political strategy associated to it.

182. Last Week Speech (Canton, October 27, 2007) and Final Campaign Speech (Manassas, November 3, 2008).

The expression “one nation” was taken up in many other speeches.

183. The idea is further developed in References to race prior to “A more perfect union” p.60.

184. “Our Moment is Now” (Des Moines, December 27, 2007). This partly echoes in substance John F.

Kennedy‟s address to Americans: “Don‟t ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” (Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961)

185. Vanessa BEASLEY, You the people: American national identity in presidential rhetoric (College Station:

Texas A&M University Press, 2004), p.8, quoted in Ryan Lee TETEN, op. cit., p.674. As for Walter Fischer, he

explains that the president‟s efforts to go public are a way to “promote the idea of the American people to the American people.” Walter FISCHER, “Rhetorical Fiction and the Presidency,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol.66, April 1980, p.120.

186. “L‟effet d‟oracle est un de ces phénomènes que nous avons l‟illusion de comprendre trop vite […] et nous

ne savons pas le reconnaître dans l‟ensemble des situations dans lesquelles quelqu‟un parle au nom de quelque

chose qu‟il fait exister par son discours même. [

L‟effet d‟oracle, c‟est l‟exploitation de la transcendance du

groupe par rapport à l‟individu singulier opérée par un individu qui effectivement est d‟une certaine façon le groupe. Pierre BOURDIEU, Langage et pouvoir symbolique (Paris : Seuil Essais, 2001), pp.269-270.



George Lakoff noted that Obama‟s speeches were characterized by “we, we, we” while Hillary Clinton‟s speeches focused on “I, I, I”. 187

In Obama‟s speeches, people were seen as “agents, embedded in history‟s journey.” 188 While in Hillary Clinton‟s speeches, she defined herself as the solution to the crisis; with Obama, werepresent the solution because it depended upon the choices that the American people made, “The American experiment has worked in large part because we guided the market‟s invisible hand with a higher principle.” 189 Because Obama sees people as “the real agents of change”, he often associated action verbs with the pronoun “we”. The verb was in fact often combined with the modal auxiliary “will” or “can” to refer to what would be done after the election was over:

We can bring doctors and patients, workers and businesses, Democrats and Republicans together; and we can tell the drug and insurance industry that while they'll get a seat at the table, they don't get to buy every chair. […] And when I am President, we will end this war in Iraq and bring our troops home, we will finish the job against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, we will care for our veterans […]. 190

Except in the speeches delivered in front of Democrats, as in the Jefferson Jackson Dinners 191 or in front of exclusively African American audiences as was the case on January 20, 2008 when Obama was invited to speak in Martin Luther King‟s Church, Obama exclusively used an all-inclusive “we”, reaching to Republicans and Independents alike. 192 In fact, even in the specifically homogenous audiences mentioned, Obama shifted between an exclusive “we” referring to African Americans or Democrats and an inclusive “we”, whose occurrences were more frequent than the exclusive “we”. Obama‟s inclusive “we” here clearly encompasses groups of people opposing each other. This shows that even in front of specific audiences he feels a part of, Obama sought to reach out to all Americans.

187. “Rhetoric: From Aristotle to Obama (Yes We Can)”

188. John M. MURPHY, “Political Economy and Rhetorical Matter”, Rhetoric and Public Affairs, Vol.12, No.2,

2009, p.303 ff.

189. “Renewing the American Economy” (New York, March 27, 2008). Obama gave that speech in Cooper

Union, where Lincoln had delivered his anti-slavery oration in 1860. For many, it was thanks to that speech that

Lincoln had been elected.

190. New Hampshire Primary Speech (Nashua, January 8, 2008).

191. In Iowa (Des Moines, November 10, 2007), Virginia (Richmond, February 9, 2008) and Indiana (Indianapolis, May 4, 2008).

192. In his first Inaugural Address, Lincoln, who was often seen as a reference by Obama, chose a different

strategy to address his countrymen. He explicitly used the personal pronoun “you” to refer to the Southerners, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.” The context was obviously widely different as the secession was well under way. Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated President of the Confederation two weeks before Lincoln was sworn in as President of the United States. The use of the pronoun “we” in the speech clearly implied the existence of two opposite sides, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” (March 4, 1861).


In “The Audacity of Hope”, Obama uses the pronoun “we” in a special way: “We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don‟t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states.” The identification is fairly complex. Obama is explicitly referring to two different and opposed sections of the society. It is therefore surprising that Obama used the personal pronoun “we” to refer to both groups instead of the partisan opposition between “we” (Democrats) and “they” (Republicans). By using “we” in this exclusive sense, Obama can discursively (and symbolically) join both groups. “We” here could actually be replaced by “some of us”. It is more effective however to use the personal pronoun “we” “than the expression “some of us” as it expresses a fragmentation, a separation with the extraction from the group. The pronoun “we” is used to represent Americans and enabled Obama to identify with both Democrats and Republicans. Opposing “we” to “they”

Obama frequently and harshly criticized the lobbyists” and “special interests” in Washington who control America. In his analysis of Obama‟s stump speech, Gerald R. Schuster from the University of Pittsburgh explained that it was important for Obama to “emphasize the argument for separation”, stating that “he [was] not one of them.” 193

I have done more than any other candidate in this race to take on lobbyists and won. They have not funded my campaign, they will not get a job in my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am President. 194

For Obama, “lobbyists” and “special interests” are seen as threats to democratic principles. They are anti-democratic forces and hold real power in Washington, favoring their own interests at the expense of the public good. Although the word is never mentioned, a form of corruption, or at least collusion, is here pointed at. Obama‟s discourse is anti-elitist in nature. To some extent, Obama‟s discourse resonates with Jacksonian echoes, defending the common man against special interests.

Obama also used the personal pronoun “they” to refer to the “cynics”, the “skeptics”, and “those who are preparing to divide us” 195 who were never identified by name and they

193. Alec MacGILLIS and Gerald R. SHUSTER, “Anatomy of a Stump Speech”, The Washington Post, 26

February 2008.

194. Iowa Jefferson Jackson Dinner (Des Moines, November 10, 2007).

195. The Audacity of Hope” (July 27, 2004). It was taken up with variations during the 2008 campaign.


were never clearly defined. The most famous use of the pronoun “they” by Obama was in the opening lines of the Iowa Caucus Night Speech:

You know, they said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.

“They” is later specified as representing the “skeptics”, those who believe that race was still a barrier in America although this is never said explicitly. By remaining a vague, ambiguous reference, it is open to various interpretations without pointing at anyone in particular. 196 The racial reference is stronger for not being explicit. Does “our” refer to Democrats (or people) supporting him? African Americans? The Obama campaign team? Though this possessive determiner is clearly exclusive, it is immediately followed by an inclusive reference (country “[coming] together”) so that anyone in the audience can feel directly addressed to.

Sometimes, the pronoun “they” was not even pronounced but was strongly implied when Obama used the passive form as in, “We‟re divided into Red States and Blue States, and told always to point the finger at somebody else the other party, or gay people, or immigrants.197 Obama can not mention the agent because it is not necessary. Anyone knows who he is referring to. Then, it is more subtle and it enabled him to focus on the object of his criticism: the attitude of pointing at scapegoats, not the people responsible for fostering such attitude. To mention the agent would have put emphasis on it (end-focus). Shifting back and forth between “we” and “I”

As most candidates and Presidents in office, Obama often shifted between “we” and “I”. It was clearly the case in Obama‟s stump speech as he started with the pronoun “I” to introduce himself and the reasons why he was running for president and then shifted to the all-inclusive “we” to reach out to his audience and unite to them, then back again to the pronoun „I” to respond to criticisms leveled at him and to tell his personal story. He concluded by urging his listeners to join him and win together. The shifts correspond to the various parts of Obama‟s speeches which alternate between the personal perspective (personal story and

196. For more on this deliberate ambiguity, see n.215 p.63.

197. “Turn the page” speech, (San Diego, April 27, 2007).


political commitment) and a larger perspective (account of the problems faced by Americans, praise of America and Americans).

As Ryan Lee Teten pointed out in his analysis of George W. Bush‟s 2000 Inaugural Address, the President shifts from “I” to “we” to identify “himself as one of the people” and also “identify himself as the leader of the country.” 198 The pronoun “I” enabled Obama to present what his actions as President of the United States of America would be. Indeed, the pronoun “I” was often used in combination with the modal auxiliary “will” but hardly ever with a performative verb. Though not yet elected, the shifts between the pronouns “we” and “I” allowed Obama to appear as “one of them” and also as their potential and prospective leader. The fact that Obama chose the pronoun “I” instead of an exclusive “we” to refer to his Administration might suggest that he intended to claim full responsibility for the tasks he would be in charge of. Obama used the pronoun “you” to put special emphasis on Americans and dissociate them from him:

But this campaign that we‟re running is not about me, it's about you, it's about your hopes, and your dreams, and what you will do. Because there are few obstacles that can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.” 199

As was pointed out earlier, Obama sees people as the real agents of change and that is why he used an action verb combined with the modal auxiliary willto insist on the part they would have to play after the election, not just for the election. Obama somehow echoed Kennedy‟s famous quote in his Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961: “Don‟t ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” 200

Generally, presidential candidates use the pronoun “I” to set themselves forward. It was the case in Hillary Clinton‟s speeches as it had formerly been the case in Reagan‟s speeches when he was campaigning. As we pointed out in, Hillary Clinton often focused on the first personal pronoun. When she did use the pronoun “we”, it was an inclusive “we” which she associated with state verbs, for example “we know”. With action verbs, she used more generally an exclusive “we” to refer to her team or later her Administration. You” referred to the voters who were not considered as agents of change by Clinton:

198. Ryan Lee TETEN, op. cit., pp.669.

199. “Turn the PageSpeech (San Diego, April 28, 2007).

200. For more parallels between John Kennedy and Barack Obama, see Franck RICH, “Ask Not What J.F.K.

Can Do for Obama”, The New York Times, op-ed, February 3, 2008.


We came back tonight because you spoke loudly and clearly. You want this campaign to be about you because there is so much at stake for our country.” 201

When she associates “you” with an action verb, it is clearly with the election in mind, not about what will be done after the election. Obama and Clinton offered different approaches and their discursive strategies reflected how they saw themselves and how they saw Americans in the campaign and after the campaign. Obama‟s notion of unity was predominant and was delineated into a cohesive discursive strategy.

2.2.3. The functions of the toponyms

Barack Obama used the expression “the United States of America”, that is to say the full institutional name of the country, especially at the beginning of the campaign and then in speeches delivered at key-moments: in the Final Primary Speech, which marked the beginning of the campaign against McCain, in the Acceptance Speech, in which Obama officially accepted to be the Democrats‟ candidate in November 2008 as well as in the speeches focusing on one of the major topics (health care and education). It was used each time Obama explained why he had decided to run for President. The words “President” was hence often coalesced with the expression “the United States of America.” 202 It lent more solemnity to the function.

It is interesting to note that Obama never used the acronym. To repeat the entire name is a way to emphasize the adjective “united” which is not reduced to an initial letter and bore a contrastive stress when it was opposed to Red States and Blue States. In addition to focusing on the notion of unity, it was also a way to sacralize the country by not reducing it to a combination of initial letters.

Luc Benoît à la Guillaume explains that the reference “Americahas become more frequent in American presidential discourse since the mid-20th century because it echoes the name of the continent and recalls the country‟s universalist, if not imperialistic, calling. 203 It is indeed more frequent in Obama‟s speeches than “the United States”. Obama generally used the United States” in association with the title: “president of the United States of America”.

201. Hillary Clinton, New Hampshire Primary Night Speech (January 8, 2008).

202. The full name was hardly ever used by Senator McCain during his campaign.

203. Luc BENOÎT À LA GUILLAUME, Le discours d’investiture des présidents américains ou les paradoxes

de l’éloge (Paris : Harmattan, 2003), p.76.


When he had to mention the country, he used either “our country”, “this country” or “America”. Apart from these imperialistic undertones, Americacan more easily refer to the nation than the institutional designation of “the United States of America” can. The fact that it is possible to use America as a metonymy for Americans reinforces the reference to the American nation. Obama sometimes used that metonymy: “America, our moment is now.” 204 For Georgeta Cisleru, such a use of a country‟s name operates as a “semantic integrator” 205 which permits to represent the nation as a unitary entity. It therefore helps reinforce the idea of unity.

Obama‟s speeches sought to overcome, at least with words, partisan divisions. Through his discursive strategies, he sought to stand at a superior level. That was also the case with racial divisions but in that case, it was even more delicate.

2.2.4. A post-racial discourse?

There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America. 206

As America is a country where official censuses classify people according to racial criteria, the representation of the country as a divided, fragmented nation prevails even at the institutional level and has therefore a paramount influence on how Americans view their country. If Obama presented America as a united country, it was not just to defend a political vision but to convince voters that, although he belonged to a “visible” ethnic minority, he could represent them all, the identification was possible. For Obama, the stakes of presenting a unitary vision of the country were hence also very personal.

204. Iowa Jefferson Jackson Dinner (Des Moines, November 10, 2007). It was also used in the speech against

the war in Iraq (October 2, 2007) and in The Acceptance Speech (Denver, August 28, 2008). The metonymy was

also used to introduce the epilogue of “The Audacity of Hope” in 2004: “America, tonight, if you feel the same energy that I do, if you feel the same passion that I do […] then I have no doubt that all across the country, from Florida to Oregon, from Washington to Maine, the people will rise up in November, and John Kerry will be sworn in as president.”

205. Georgeta CISLARU, “Le nom de pays comme outil de représentation sociale”, MOTS, Les langages du

politique, March 2008, p.53.

206. “The Audacity of Hope” (Boston, July 27, 2004).

59 References to race prior to “A more perfect union”

Obama‟s positioning as regards race relations in America was made more delicate by the fact that his family had not shared the experience of African Americans in the U.S. with the trauma of slavery and segregation. Unlike most blacks in the U.S., he is an African American with a direct connection with both Africa and America. In the speech that gained him public recognition at the 2004 Democratic Convention, he emphasized his bi-racial roots and his experience as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago, a particularly underprivileged African American area as well as his successful professional career. Obama never mentioned any direct references to color, though. The reference is implicit in the places he mentioned (Kenya, South Side of Chicago). Even when he listed the obstacles that might have hampered his social ascension, the mention of his skin color is strangely missing:

My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or "blessed," believing that in a tolerant America, your name is no barrier to success. They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren't rich, because in a generous America - you don't have to be rich to achieve your potential.

The autobiographical lines sound more like the praise of a mythical America, depicted as a magic land than as a realistic account of his life. The uses of the noun “faith” and the verbs “believe” and “imagine” are quite telling. Obama mainly focused on the hope and the common goals, common ideals and common future uniting all Americans, without giving any special focus to the past traumas and present grievances of the African Americans and overlooking white responsibility. The only reference to slavery came at the end of the speech:

“It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs.” For McPhail, Obama here “romanticizes the historical realities of black suffering and borders on the stereotypical image of the „happy darkie‟ of traditional racism.” 207 In addition, the sentence is one item in a list in which Obama evoked other traumatic experiences (immigrants, soldiers). The epilogue was lyrical with a rhythm heightened by the use of anaphora and the use of alliterations (“s”, “f”, “r” and “g” in the sentence on slavery). By reducing slavery to a trauma among others, Obama sought to recognize the past and present hardships of all those he was addressing and

207. Marc Lawrence McPHAIL, “Obama‟s Menexenusian Message” in David A. FRANK and Mark Lawrence McPHAIL, “Barack Obama's Address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention: Trauma, Compromise, Consilience, and the (Im)possibility of Racial Reconciliation”, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Vol.8, No.4, Winter 2005, p.583.


tone down the specificity of any group. 208 It is not surprising therefore that the 2004 speech has not been received in the same way by David A. Frank, a white scholar who considered it as a successful discursive strategy of consilience 209 to achieve reconciliation and Lawrence McPhail, a black scholar who considered it revealed an old vision of racelessness influenced by the whites‟ “dominant rhetorical tropes: innocence, race neutrality, positive self- presentation”. 210

Obama could have a political credibility on the national level only if he rose above his community and addressed and encompassed everyone. Being identified as the candidate of the African Americans would prevent the other communities from identifying with him. Because Obama insisted so much on the common future, it was a necessary corollary for him to redefine the past (and present) as a common and shared experience. This was the strategy delineated for the campaign in 2007-2008:

When I came back from that celebration, 211 people tapped me on the back and said, oh, what a wonderful celebration of African-American history that must have been. And I said, no, you don't understand, that wasn‟t African-American history we were celebrating. That was American history that we were celebrating. 212

Obama developed the same approach when addressing the Hispanic community later in the campaign: 213

It's about making sure that we have a government that knows that a problem facing any American is a problem facing all Americans. It's about making sure our government knows that when there's a Hispanic girl stuck in a crumbling school who graduates without learning to read or doesn't graduate at all, that isn't just a Hispanic- American problem, that's an American problem. When Hispanics lose their jobs faster than almost anybody else, or work jobs that pay less, and come with fewer benefits than almost anybody else, that isn't a Hispanic-American problem, that's an American problem. When twelve million people live in hiding in this country and hundreds of thousands of people cross our borders illegally each year, when companies hire undocumented workers instead of legal citizens to avoid paying overtime or to avoid a union, and a nursing mother is torn away from her baby by an

208. “Obama conflates these traumas with those of other Americans in a manner that undermines their historical

specificity in order to construct a „politics of hope‟.” McPHAIL, op. cit., p.582.

209. Consilience is seen as “an approach in which disparate members of a composite audience are invited to

„jump together‟ out of their separate experiences in favor of a common set of values or aspirations.” David A.

FRANK and Mark Lawrence McPHAIL, op. cit., p.572.

210. McPHAIL, op. cit., p.583.

211. i.e., the 42nd anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma. On March 7, 1965,

peaceful civil rights demonstrators were violently attacked by the police. The aim of the attack was to prevent the marchers from reaching Montgomery, the Alabama state capital.

212. “Turn the Page” speech (San Diego, April 28, 2007). The section can be found at the end of the speech just

before the lyrical outburst of the epilogue.

213. The Latinos had heavily supported H. Clinton during the primaries but gradually shifted to Obama once the

primaries were over. Ed HORNICK, “Poll: 'Sharp reversal' for Obama with Latino voters” ,CNN, July 24, 2008.


immigration raid, that is a problem that all of us black, white, and brown must solve as one nation. 214

Obama used in both cases contrasts to oppose the general approach (“that wasn‟t African- American history we were celebrating” or “that isn't a Hispanic-American problem”) before saying what it was (“that was American history”, “that‟s an American problem”). Obama redefined American history (use of the BE copula) after denying the common assumption and representation (use of the BE copula with the negation). In the speech delivered at the LULAC Convention, the idea was given more weight as it came as a leitmotiv at the end of each sentence (epistrophe).