"Yes We Can". Barack Obama's Rhetoric of Hope in the 2008 Presidential Race

Term Paper, 2016

14 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Introduction

2. Barack Obama as a Personification of the American Dream

3. Analysis of Barack Obama’s Speeches in the Presidential Race 2008
3.1. New Hampshire Primary Speech of January 8, 2008
3.2. President- Elect Victory Speech of November 4, 2008

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

In the 2008 Presidential Election of the United States of America the democratic Afro-American Senator of Illinois Barack Obama won against his republican competitor, the Senator of Arizona John McCain. This was partly a consequence of Obama’s tactic to deliver speeches which transmitted hope and the faith to believe in America as a great country with a great future where everything is possible, by using common American cultural concepts like the American Dream, the American Exceptionalism and talking about an American Unity, an inclusive America where everyone is welcome.

In the following paper I will firstly show what exactly the concept of the American Dream means, why it is still important until today and why Barack Obama fits very good into this construction of the fulfilled American Dream. The cultural concept of the American Dream stands for the opportunity to hope for a better life and that everything is possible as long as one works hard enough, so it is often used by politicians like Obama to create an optimistic atmosphere. Furthermore I will analyze two speeches of the Presidential Race in 2008 which Obama delivered. The first one is the famous Primary Speech of New Hampshire in January 8, 2008. This one is an important example for his rhetoric of hope, because it was the first speech where Obama frequently used his unofficial slogan “Yes We Can” to broadcast his belief in the American people. This slogan is very well known and it is still the sentence with which Obama is strongly connected. The second one is the final President-Elect Victory Speech of November 8, 2008 that was delivered in Chicago, Illinois where Obama shows again his vision of a United America, his belief in a possible change and his will to lead into a better future with the help of the American people.

2. Barack Obama as the personification of the American Dream

In the American mentality certain cultural concepts play a big role, in some ways a much bigger role than in most regions of the world. This is connected with the historically late settlement in the 17th century. The people of the “new world” had to construct their new identity and mentality due to creating a “usable past” (Hebel 304). To feel at home and to become a real American it was essential that there are characteristics and concepts which are typically American and unique components of the American mentality.

The American Dream was and is still until today the most important cultural concept of the United States, it can be seen as the superordinate national identity construction (Hebel 332). It has its roots in the very early history of the USA, when the first settlers came to this new world with endless space and land and so with an endless range of opportunities to get wealthy, rich, satisfied and even happy. Especially today this is not only meant in a material way, but the pursuit of “a life free of class distinction, [and] having no experience of the sort of rigid hierarchies of privilege that existed in the old world” (Brooks 104). This means that America is a country where there is no distinction based on attributes as origin, ethnicity, race or religion, and that everybody has the same chances to fulfill his or her dreams. The consequence is that success is determined by intelligence, motivation and most of all hard work, so it is achievable for everyone, even for people of a lower class or of a minority. Of course this assumption is only an imaginative concept to create hope and optimism and does not necessarily correspond to the daily life reality in the United States.

According to Brooks the American Dream is a concept which every native-born American learns in his very early childhood (103), so there is a very stable and strong trust that Americans usually have in it. This concept produces hope and optimism that almost everything is possible and because of that it transfers very positive connotations and so it is a good strategy to win the hearts of American people with the use of it. This concept is used by almost all of the American presidents, but the most famous speech where it is used is the “I Have a Dream” speech by the Afro-American preacher Martin Luther King in 1963 (Hebel 333). Also Obama uses a lot of references to the American Dream in all his famous speeches. Special about Obama is that he performs this role model of a fulfilled American Dream very authentically, most of all because of his ethnic background and his dark skin color which reminds of Martin Luther King who also fought against racism and for a better America. This constructed and consciously used self-image helped Obama a lot to seem authentically and to convince the audience in the presidential race.

Barack Obama is definitely not what the American people would call a common or ordinary president. Actually he is the first Afro-American president of American history, which “was rightly seen as milestone event in America’s progress toward racial equality” (Brooks 5). In fact, his whole biography is not what can be called “typical” for American presidents and still it is typical for the cultural concept of the American Dream: Barack Obama was born on August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii. His mother was a white woman from Wichita, Kansas and his father a black man from Kenya, where he went back after his marriage to Barack Obama’s mother. However, from 1971 on Obama lives with his maternal grandparents and works his way through until he enters Harvard Law School in 1988 to work as a civil rights lawyer. In 1996 he starts his political career, wins the election for a seat in the Illinois State Senate (Mainzer). No later than 2004 when Obama delivered the Keynote Address at Democratic National Convention in Boston, it was obvious that he is a great speaker and he became the new hope of the Democratic Party for the next elections (Emling 207) and as a result “Obama rose to national prominence” (Atwater 124). From this moment on it was clear that he has a special talent for delivering speeches and to pull the audience into the spell. His biography and his vision of an inclusive, tolerant and more exceptional America were the reasons why he seemed so authentic and sympathetic to the American people and the western world in general. Due to the fact that it is very important and helpful to politicians to have such an authentic positive aura and the skill to deliver speeches in an especially convincing way, it was clear that this has not been Obamas last political performance.

3. Analysis of Barack Obama’s speeches of the Presidential Race 2008

Being able to deliver speeches in an authentic and convincing way has always been an essential skill for politicians, even more in the United States than in Europe. In the following I will analyze in how far and with which strategy Barack Obama made it to convince his audience that with him as the new president a change into a better and more justice future is possible and how he creates a rhetoric of hope.

In the time of this presidential race America had to face some big issues, for example the economic crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the progressing climate change and problems about the health care system in the US. This initial situation was a good starting point for the success of Obama’s rhetoric because the American voters were looking for someone who promises them hope and change.

3.1 New Hampshire Primary Speech of January 8, 2008

The speech which delivered Barack Obama after the Primaries in New Hampshire is one of the most famous speeches he ever delivered. It shows very well that he emphasizes the United States as a real union where everybody is equal, no matter which race or ethnicity he or she has. It is also the first speech where he uses a lot of times his slogan “Yes We Can”, although the official slogan was to be meant “Change We Can Believe In”. Even these two slogans of their own emphasize that Obama tries to leave the past with all its problems behind through finding solutions for these and focus on a better and changed future.

After saying thank you to the audience and to his democratic competitor Hillary Clinton he starts his speech with the statement that “no one could have imagined” (Obama, New Hampshire 9) that he would make it so far. Even this little sentence in the beginning underlines these slogans that change is possible and that people can hope to achieve more than they have ever believed in. He goes on with explaining that most time of the race he has been far behind his competitors, but still he made it and was successful (12-14). These statements that something is somehow unlikely but still possible transmits hope to believe that even improbable things are possible and that giving up is no option. Furthermore he always emphasizes that it is not only his victory but the victory of all the people who voted for him and who made this possible (16). Throughout the speech he uses pronouns like “we”, “our”, “us” and finally “you” very often. In this speech of 1240 words he uses the word “I” only 5 times and the pronoun “we” 41 times, which is an impressive number for a speech of this length. This inclusiveness of Obama’s rhetoric has a big impact on the audience, everybody feels like he is part of a greater unity and that Obama is only one of them. With this tactic Obama raises the importance of the audience and decreases the influence of himself, which shows that it is his intention to seem approachable and close to the people. According to Bramley pronouns are used to “socially construct identities rather than objectively represent them” (13). So, what Obama does here is to construct a collective identity, a group membership and a connection between him and the audience.

The sentence “There is something happening in America” (16, 17, 21, 25) is repeated 5 times in the next part of the speech. It is always connected to a positive event which happened only because of the influence of the American people e.g. “when Americans who are young in age and spirit, who’ve never participated in politics before, turn out in numbers which we have never seen” (22-23). This emphasizes that a change is not only the will and the result of Obama or the Democratic Party, but the will and the result of the majority of the American people. There are some parts where Obama addresses the audience directly: “You, all of you who are here tonight […], you can be the new majority who can lead this nation out of a political darkness” (31-33). This expression underlines again that Obama trusts in America and its people and so he has a positive image of the American people (Emling 285). The audience is no longer only the audience who listens passively to Obama, but an active part of his campaign and of America’s success. Obama does not only include minorities as black people, Latinos and Asians, he even includes “independents and Republicans” (34). This shows that he does not want to be seen as a servant of his own Democratic Party or his own success, but as a servant of America with its entire people, no matter where they are from or what they believe in. According to Atwater one can see Obama’s rhetoric not only as rhetoric of hope, but also as a “rhetoric of new politics” (126), because it goes beyond parties and beyond nationalities and other borders.

In the next paragraphs Obama talks about the problems America has at this moment, e.g. not well paid teachers, taxes, the war in Iraq (46-69). However, he makes it that these problems sound not as negative at all, he turns these arguments around and creates hope out of them by using his slogan “Yes We Can” (49, 51, 54) and “Yes We Will” (60). All these crisis that America and the world has to go through are seen here as an opportunity to solve the big problems through a strong will, hope and hard work which definitely fits into the context of the American Dream and connected to it American Exceptionalism. Obama does not take the construct that American people can change the world as a unique topic of himself and of the presence, rather he emphasizes that this is a very common American belief and that it is “a creed that was written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of the nation” (93-94). That means that the belief in hope is not only typical for Obama but for the American mentality as a whole, it is the “idea of America” (Brooks 104). With this Obama unites the people because he underlines that they have got one thing in common: their American identity and mentality and so the belief in hope for everyone.

At the end of this speech delivered in New Hampshire he points out again, that the United states are a unity and that they “are not as divided as […] [their] politics suggest”(111-112) which is a reference to the most famous and still popular president of the USA Abraham Lincoln who stated that “a divided house in itself cannot stand”. This reference shows again that everything is possible in the land of opportunities: Lincoln freed the black people from slavery and around 150 years later an Afro-American has the chance to become the first black president of the USA.

All in all this primary speech delivered in New Hampshire is a very good example for Obama’s rhetoric of hope and inclusiveness, furthermore he uses typical American constructs like the American Dream and refers indirectly to the popular American President Abraham Lincoln to win the audience.

3.2 President- Elect Victory Speech of November 4, 2008

Obama gave his victory speech in 2008 on 4th of November in his home city Chicago, Illinois. After saluting Chicago he starts directly with a big reference on the American Dream by saying that “America is a place that all things are possible” (Obama, President-Elect 2-3). Obviously he talks about his own appearance as the first black Afro-American president of the United States, which could only become possible because of the “power of […] (their) democracy” (4-5). In fact, “his campaign and his presidency have ushered in a new feeling of optimism in America, especially for African Americans” (Teasley 417).


Excerpt out of 14 pages


"Yes We Can". Barack Obama's Rhetoric of Hope in the 2008 Presidential Race
University of Passau
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In der Hausarbeit wird Obamas Rhetorik analysiert, welche herausragend integrativ ist und Hoffnung schafft. Besonders eingegangen wird auf folgende 2 Reden: 1) New Hampshire Primary Speech (January 8, 2008) 2) President- Elect Victory Speech (November 4, 2008)
barack, obama, rhetoric, hope, presidential, race
Quote paper
Lisa Meyer (Author), 2016, "Yes We Can". Barack Obama's Rhetoric of Hope in the 2008 Presidential Race, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/376862


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