Obama's Rhetoric and the Myth of Virtuous Power

Scientific Essay, 2009

41 Pages, Grade: "-"


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Framing the Progressive Thought

3. Creation of a presidential myth
3.1. The Audacity of Hope
3.2. Analyzing "A More Perfect Union"

4. Inaugural Address

5. Conclusion

6. Resources

7. Appendices

1. Introduction

An initial reaction to the appearance of Barack Obama on the American political stage has been one oscillating between reluctant approval, enthusiastic appreciation and mistrusting rejection. The chance of the first African-American president brought about much support for Obama, as well as critique claiming that he would just be a tool of liberal forces to put forth a politically correct agenda. The problem of race, very early on in the presidential primaries and later in the general election, was oddly unspoken of, yet permanently present.

To meticulously analyze the progression of the contestants’ campaigns in the race for presidential office will not be very rewarding, for the battles fought were manifold and are already picked apart by extensive media coverage.

It would be more redeeming to examine how prior to the election Obama staged his political persona and agenda in the public perception via rhetoric means. For that reason two speeches of Barack Obama will serve as a foundation for analysis. One is "A More Perfect Union", given in March 2008 in the height of the Democratic primary campaign. It deals with the race problematic in America. The other one is his Inaugural Address from January 2009 which of course has a much more celebratory tone. Both speeches center around the question of how the American society does deal and should deal with times of economical distress though their topical focus is an entirely different one. However, the effect both aim for, and to a large degree surely achieve, is a uniting one. Uniting different racial groups, uniting political opponents, uniting most of the divisive tendencies of society to reclaim the American Dream. Whenever referring to certain parts of a speech, the number of the particular sentence will be added in brackets. The speeches in the annex shall serve as reference.

How this unifying effect is rendered effective in Obama’s performative and mainly rhetorical appearance shall be the focus of this paper. Politics is not so much the discussion of actual issues but often the attempt to establish a mindset in which the debate is led. These mindsets manifest themselves performatively and rhetorically. The framing theory by "Don’t Think of an Elephant!" author George Lakoff and progressive political blogger Jeffrey Feldman offers a helpful tool in the venture to analyze what has become known as "The Obama Phenomenon" (Herbert).

2. Framing the Progressive Thought

There are two powerful forces in the American political system: the Grand Old Party - the Republicans, and the Democratic Party. In the public conscience, these can be attributed to certain convictions and ways of thinking about issues.

Conservatives generally strive to establish a small government with a certain order and then let the private market take care of every else. They emphasize the personal responsibility of every citizen for himself. Progressives, in contrast, claim that everyone has a responsibility for everyone else in the community, and therefore the government must provide the people with a framework in which everyone is taken care of.

The very moment these general guidelines to evaluate issues become unchallengeable ideologies; any possibility of improvement in society comes to a halt. Because there is one problem with ideologies, as convenient as they may be in structuring the multifarious world: "[v]alues are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question" (Obama, Audacity 72). Especially in the era of the Bush regime there has been an absolutism of free market, an ideology of no social safety net and an absolutism of the Christian right (Obama, Audacity 46). This is what Obama resents, not "traditional conservative virtues of temperance and restraint" (Obama, Audacity 45), but the blind application of ideology to everything.

He makes it clear that a political decision can no longer be based on a pre-conditioned set of ideological discourses, but has to be based on a discussion on the level of values. Obama puts forth a bipartisanship that allows him to stay true to his own values, but at the same time permits dialogue between positions (Obama, Audacity 156). In fact, he tries to ground all his pragmatic decisions on those values everyone in America should agree upon. To come to a compromise with conservative opinions, he does not try to discuss the subject matter itself in the first place, but tries to come to an agreement on a base of shared values. That this is a venture sometimes bound to fail in everyday political decisions he explains in various episodes in his book about his time as a senator.

A constant policy of blocking the other party with filibusters is the kind of policy that doesn’t just hold back progress in legislative processes, but it is an attitude that sweeps over to the citizens. This feeling of being trapped in an ever-enduring stalemate also rubs off on the society and its negotiation of conflicts. Uniting people over divisive topics is one of the main tasks of a president. But overcoming the dichotomous modes of talking about issues is a sine qua non for Obama to achieve this.

Categories like ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are merely "labels that played to Republican advantage, but were inadequate to address the problems [...]" (Obama, Audacity 42). For progressives it had been hard to break the image that Republicans, especially in the time of Reagan, had framed for them. They were considered "a band of out-of-touch, tax-and-spend, blame-America-first, politically correct elites" (Obama, Audacity 39). For years Democrats were being chastised for manipulating language. This found culmination in Bill Clinton’s "sad phrase 'it depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is'" when speaking in front of the Grand Jury (Obama, Audacity 94).

What the liberal rhetoric actually aimed for was the rejection of universal truths and black-and-white characterizations. The signing of the Patriot Act in 2001 and the support it got can be just as much traced back to manipulative language. But this language worked because it was not trying to be vague or assessing - it tried to package an issue into terms people could make sense of in their perception of the world. The progressive side had to figure out how they came to be stuck in this image of constantly relativizing everything. They had to find a way how best to reframe not only their image but also how to make sense of their political agenda in terms people could relate to more easily.

A frame is a rhetorical field through which certain beliefs are represented. Sometimes these frames cater to conservative ideologies that few people are able to see through. According to Jeffrey Feldman, stepping out of a given rhetorical frame is a central tool for progressive opinion leaders to free themselves from rehashed catchwords (Feldman 9). The frame is not what is said but how it is said. The frame is the overall motive that is woven into a speech or the whole way a party has agreed upon to rhetorically deal with certain issues (e.g. pro-life vs. pro-choice). Stepping into the frame of a former president allows reevaluating current events from a different angle and historic perspective.

"To find the message, we need to look for the most important sentence or phrase. To find the frame, by contrast, we need to pose a few questions about the speech, collect some keywords, and then give voice to the unspoken logic that orders the entire speech" (Feldman 36).

For that purpose I have included a so-called wordle of both speeches. A wordle is computer-generated image that only omits common words such as "and" or "the" and magnifies each word in accordance with its frequency. Thus, these pictures allow a fast grasp of the keywords of a speech.

Feldman suggests that political ideas often itself are clothed in metaphors. Analyzing the frame of a speech or of a general political agenda means to uncover the rhetorical strategy. "In general, a metaphor in politics takes the form of two concepts brought into the same idea: [abstract issue] is [a concrete thing]" (Feldman 10).

The founders of the framing theory claim that there is a vital difference between spin, which is the bending of truth to meet a certain end, and framing thoughts. The latter is concerned with "morality and truth: to communicating your values and principles and to framing facts as having a moral values and, often, an ethical imperative" (Lakoff xiii).

Therefore it is much harder to uncover framing strategies than to uncover the making of spin doctors, because framing works on a meta-rhetorical level. Claiming that progressives should completely rely on framing would be a naive way to look onto politics. The media does not content itself with mindsets or rhetorical frames; it needs personalities it can sell or condemn. Framing and spin go hand in hand and use comparable tools, i.e. the manipulation of words in order to assign a certain meaning to them.

When Paul Goetsch discusses the "rhetorical presidency" (Goetsch 10) as a modern phenomenon brought about by ever-increasing discussion of politics in the media, he does not just ask about the different modes of rhetorical representation a president must be able to master. He tries to show how presidential power and its execution are intertwined with presidential rhetoric (11). He claims that,

"[a]part from spending much of their energy on their own re-election campaigns and on supporting their party’s candidates, Presidents are now inclined to use campaign and public relation techniques in their daily work. This may mean that image-building and catering to the public’s moods become far more important than the actual discussion of issues" (12).

Examining the rhetorical representation of a president, to uncover his framing strategies will then allow for a more concrete understanding of his agenda. It would also allow telling apart the framed moral principles from the staged persona who is trying to embody it.

3. Creation of a presidential myth

Claiming that Obama’s political appearance is a persona does not imply that his words are dishonest or his actions a mere show put on for the media and the people. Rather, it is to be seen as a performance in the sociological sense. The term persona has its roots in the Greek language and in traditional Greek theater in which all the actors wore masks. This notion is an interesting one seeing as "cognitive and narrative science[s]" (Feldman 13) and strategies play an important role in the understanding of political framing.

For example, the screenwriting theory encourages writers to construct characters with personal "wants" that are met with their actual "needs" so that the viewers can relate more easily to the characters. How is this linked to politic campaigning? Equal rules apply for the political circus, and the underlying psychological pattern of such a strategy seems to be working along these lines: Find words to express the current dissatisfaction in society. Offer an outlook to what society could be when those issues were resolved and then offer a way or candidate to do so.

Politicians also strive to act in accordance with an impression they desire to leave with the people. In Obama’s case his political persona seems to be result of a very conscious construction.

The salutary politician the liberal media made him out to be is just one side of this character.

In exposing his own racial insecurities, admitting to earlier cocaine abuse in his autobiography (93) and even claiming that he is a somewhat imperfect candidate (Obama, Union 109), he makes himself flawed but paradoxically with that even more likeable. He shows the willingness to reflect on his own weaknesses and would then not only be a wise, articulate leader but a not entirely impeccable human being whom people could connect with more easily.

When discussing political issues Obama does not only sound both intelligent and genuine, he also always aims to relate his personal experience with the matter. This strategy goes together with what Jeffrey Feldman has identified as a trend in the endorsement of candidates - the identity voter is

"a person who chooses to support a political candidate primarily for the social and cultural aspects of the person (e.g., gender, race, geography, class, etc.), and only secondarily if at all for the policies of the politician. The reason for the rise of the identity voter could be very simple: Voting is ultimately about choosing one candidate over another, and in an age where political consultants have become expert at blurring policy distinctions, identity could be the final frontier of clear choice for voters" (Feldman, Identity Voter).

Obama acknowledges that he "serve[s] as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." (Obama, Audacity 15)

3.1. The Audacity of Hope

There is a pivotal scene in Obama’s autobiography „Dreams From my Father“ in which he describes a church service he attended in 1990. He hears a sermon by Chicago Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the title of the sermon is "Audacity of Hope". For Obama it is the moment in which he finds his Christian faith and in which he starts to conceive of religion as a source of hope in an often cruel and unjust world.

"And if a part of me continued to feel that this Sunday communion sometimes simplified our condition, that it could sometimes disguise or suppress the very real conflicts among us and would fulfill its promise only through action, I also felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams. 'The audacity of hope! [...]'" (Obama, Dreams 294).


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Obama's Rhetoric and the Myth of Virtuous Power
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (Institut für Kultur und Medien)
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Barack, Obama, President, Presidency, America, Rhetoric, Power, Policy, Politics, Inaugural, Address, Audacity, Hope, Race, Speech, Dreams, Father, Chicago, White House, Nobel Prize, Rhetorik, Macht, Präsident, Amerika, Rede, Analyse, Sprache, Politik, yes we can, Anglistik
Quote paper
Annegret Märten (Author), 2009, Obama's Rhetoric and the Myth of Virtuous Power, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/138091


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