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The Rhetoric of “Yes We Can”

Centuries before our time, the Greeks considered the question of how to speak so as to sway the hearer’s mind with the power of words. The first to examine the ways in which we relate to one another through language, the Greeks wrote detailed treatises laying bare the sinews of human communication, and their experience of language and the laws they inferred from it gave rise to Rhetoric, the art or science of the public speaker. The father of rhetoric was said to be Corax, who lived in the closing third of the fifth century BC in the Greek city-state of Syracuse in Sicily; his disciple Thysias was credited with bringing his rhetorical discoveries to mainland Greece.

Once there, rhetoric was appropriated by the so-called “sophists.” The history of the term is riven with self-contradiction. Etymologically, “sophist” means “bearer of truth,” but its modern meaning is the exact opposite: a sophistry-the stock-in-trade of politicians-is a plausible but spurious argument in support of a falsehood.

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True rhetoric, however ─Aristotle urges in the introduction to his Rhetoric─ is by no means sophisticated. Discussing the uses of the discipline, Aristotle begins with the proclamation that rhetoric educates the common citizen and shapes his spirit, and is a useful way of advancing truth and justice, which in the natural course of things would “prevail over their opposites” if it were not because their advocates are sometimes inept.[1] Going back to the root of the matter, however, G.B. Kerferd, a scholar concerned with the earliest Greek sophists,[2] divided the school into three distinct types: sages, such as Solon, whose wisdom was embodied as law; statesmen, who applied their pre-eminent talents to practical affairs, such as Pericles and Themistocles; and “teachers of wisdom,” skilled in passing on their learning and teaching eloquence, such as Protagoras, Gorgias or Socrates.

If we view this classification in Montesquieu’s terms, the first group would stand for the legislative and judicial powers of the state, while the second group makes a good fit with the executive power. The third group, however, comprising masters of wisdom and oratory, embodies the time-honoured marriage of interests and skills between scholars and rulers, sustained by the old but evergreen art of rhetoric.

American rhetoric

Leaving aside any objective or partisan judgment one might pass on his politics, which is irrelevant to our concern here, Barack Hussein Obama, a university academic, senator, and President of the United States, provides a fascinating example. He makes a perfect fit with society as sharply characteristic as the American New World, the promised land where the political principles that were later to inspire the French Revolution of 1789 gave rise to an eclectic community, a melting pot of different ethnic origins-not all of them European-and open to all the innovations brought forth by the spectacular advance of science and technology from the Enlightenment to our own day.

This was the New Democratic Nation that, ushering in modern poetry, Walt Whitman sang in his book, Leaves of Grass. One of the singular features of that New World is the somewhat astonishing survival, at some fundamental level, of the power of the word. The contrast may seem improbable, but in America, the flourishing of technology and all its rich resources ─ the central theme of a book that is in no way complacent, but in fact hypercritical, by Marshall McLuhan and his disciple Neil Postman[3] ─ enables oratorical endeavour to thrive. Greek rhetoric, largely brought into being by the Sophists, who ─ we must not forget ─ were more interested in winning over the masses than the furtherance of truth, now has its promised land in the United States. A recent case in point is the impact of President Obama’s “Yes we can” speeches.

Again, it was Marshall McLuhan who reminded us that electric systems of communication ─radio and television particularly ─ facilitated a revival of oral expression in human communication and cultural transmission after a period of relative tyranny of the eye over the ear: the written word, with the printing press as its handmaiden, had reigned supreme over the five centuries of what McLuhan dubbed the Gutenberg Galaxy. [4]

“Technopoly” ─ Postman’s unflattering name for the United States of America ─ is a locus particularly amenable to the use and development of new technologies, but, even in the twenty-first century, bears the hallmarks of a vast human community in which, as in the ancestral tribes discussed by McLuhan, the spoken word still harbours real power.

An undeniable influence is exerted here by the religious bedrock that continues to underlie American society. Though fragmented and diverse, the Protestant churches visibly predominate, and in their communities, the biblical and evangelical word breathes life into individual and collective spiritual experience, which draws further nourishment from the often impassioned eloquence of Protestant ministers.

Barack Obama himself, a devout Christian, partakes of this culture of liturgical oratory; and, far from keeping this within the private sphere, he has no qualms about putting it on the public show as one facet among many of his political personality. His beginnings as a Chicago activist in the late 1980s saw him as a leader of the Developing Communities Project, run by the Church Association on the South Side. What’s more-and this was the subject of a serious controversy, adroitly handled by Obama when his presidential campaign was in full swing-he was an active member of Chicago’s Trinity Church, a congregation shepherded by the controversial Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

The importance of rhetoric has been a feature of American democracy since the Founding Fathers. Its earliest master was Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States and first Republican President, who proclaimed the Emancipation of black slaves in 1863. Obama brought this to the fore in his Victory Speech when he called upon his political adversaries, members of Lincoln’s own party. The man who in January 2009 became the 44th president started his campaign two years earlier in the state capital at Springfield, Illinois, wherein 1858 Lincoln had delivered his landmark “House Divided” speech.

Some political commentators have not hesitated to draw a parallel between the two by dint of their common gift for oratory. Lincoln’s most celebrated rhetorical legacy is a prodigious speech delivered on November 10, 1863, at Gettysburg. Running to only 246 words, what might have been no more than the close of a posthumous tribute to the heroes of a battle fought four months earlier on the fields of Pennsylvania became the historic proclamation that, after the Civil War, the American nation would be consecrated forever as the realm of freedom: government of the people, by the people and for the people.

The election campaign

We can readily appreciate in Barack Obama’s election campaign speeches-available at these principles, and the more effective ways in which they have been put into words, survive today; more importantly, both the principles and the words retain their power to move and engage the citizenry. This is the “power of words” which Obama invoked at the end of his speech announcing that he was running for President at the same place where, 149 years before, Lincoln had spoken on a “House Divided.”

It is accurate to point out that a decisive factor in his campaign was the recruitment of all the Internet’s rich resources: blogs, chat rooms, social networking and, above all, the availability on YouTube of some of the candidate’s key speeches, which I shall later be parsed from the rhetorical standpoint. Nevertheless, in the beginning, as in the biblical Genesis, was the Word, the foundation of the oral communication that marks us out as rational beings and as social animals. So one might say that Obama simply used the new technological possibilities offered by what some now call the Internet Galaxy,[5] just as one of his predecessors in the Oval Office had done with what McLuhan called “the Marconi Constellation.”

I am of course referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats,” a series of 30 radio talks broadcast from 1933 to 1944. Political scientists have claimed the chats played a vital role in getting the American public to understand two major presidential initiatives: first, the New Deal, which Roosevelt undertook to combat the Depression of the 1930s; secondly, Roosevelt’s decision to take America into the great war then afflicting Europe. Roosevelt’s radio talks have gone down in the history of communications as a great oratorical achievement. They would begin with an affable “Good evening, friends,” and went on for 15 to 45 minutes. 80% of Roosevelt’s words were among the thousand commonest in the English language.

Though he shares the gift of oratory with Lincoln and Roosevelt, in Obama we have a modern-day speaker addressing twenty-first-century citizens and using hitherto unthinkable technologies to enhance what, in the last instance, is little more than the outcome of applying the principles of rhetoric and its main genres of discourse: deliberative-i.e., political-discourse, and demonstrative, “epideictic” discourse. The epideictic mode includes the encomium, by which one describes a person, a pattern of behaviour or a state of affairs with the aim of dispensing praise or censure; one of its characteristic figures ─of which, as we shall see, Obama is a consummate master─ is evident, a particularly vivid form of description.

Obama was no stranger ─rather the opposite─ to the forensic rhetorical genre, having first majored in political science at Columbia and later progressed to a doctorate at the no less prestigious Harvard Law School. In fact, his media debut as a consequence of his being elected editor of the Harvard Law Review, the prelude to a distinguished career as a jurist which was later to elevate him to the chair of constitutional law at the University of Chicago.

Communication strategies

In the American system of higher education, even at the foundational level of training imparted at college up to the attainment of a bachelor’s degree, much is made of communication strategies: students are urged to study and practice them, on the view that they are of crucial import for their proper development as citizens. The significance accorded to applied rhetoric is taken to an extreme in graduate study in the social sciences and, in particular, at law school.

When I first experienced life in the United States, thirty years ago now, I was struck by how versatile and broad-ranging modern American rhetoric can be. In all facets of society, rhetoric is close at hand, especially in the media; television has not yet lost its entrenched primacy, although it is doomed increasingly to share its viewership with the Internet. Tellingly, you can find sites on the web specifically concerned with this phenomenon, such as American Rhetoric (, providing a selection of 100 major speeches, or Great Speeches Collection, at http://history

Rhetoric is, of course, present in the political discourse of members of the executive and of congressmen and senators; rhetoric is heard in the courtroom, and Hollywood has built an entire movie genre on it; rhetoric even runs through the informal, jocular acknowledgements given at showbiz awards ceremonies, and provides the sinew of Jay Leno’s and David Letterman’s late-show spiels; to particularly striking effect, rhetoric animates church sermons, designed and produced as television spectaculars that have now cornered weekend morning prime time.

It was in this culture of the revival of the word that today’s President of the United States was born and bred, and this is where he still operates today. His university training refined a number of talents that are no doubt innate. These were qualities that also graced Ronald Reagan, for instance, whose acting career proved a good fallback in the face of communicative and political challenges (the same cannot be said of George W. Bush), such as his famous debate with Walter Mondale broadcast from Kansas City towards the end of the 1984 campaign. But commentators and biographers have unanimously hailed Obama for the further distinction of oratorical fire and literary talent.

In 1995, after months of writerly seclusion in Bali, Obama published an excellent autobiographical account that met with high critical acclaim: Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.[6] On reading this memoir, one perceives that the author is touched with literary passion and possessed of wide and varied learning, ranging from Shakespeare, Melville and Emerson to Nietzsche and Saint Augustine, from Toni Morrison and Doris Lessing to the great novelist of the Deep South, the Nobel laureate William Faulkner, who merits mention in Obama’s vibrant speech delivered at Philadelphia in March 2008, “A More Perfect Union.”

Barack Obama’s rhetorical flair is also evident in his ability to empathize with his audience by his skilful actio, the austere but forceful gestures with which he delivers his speeches. He displays fine judgment in his choice of speechwriters and is able to convey to them the guiding ideas-the rhetorical inventio, or core content of the message to which his writers must then give the right words-elocutio-arranged into the most effective structure, or dispositio, for the intended purpose of the address.

Logographers, ghostwriters, negros

The history of Greek rhetoric devotes a short paragraph to memorialize the modest but indispensable figure of the “logographer:” in the fifth century BC exemplars such as Antiphon or Lysias worked as mercenary speechwriters. Their modern counterparts find no shortage of work as members of the teeming campaign outfits put on the road by the typical American presidential candidate, whose frenzied activity and ethical quandaries were taken to the screen by Mike Nichols in 1998 movie Primary Colors, starring John Travolta and Emma Thompson.

Obama’s leading logographer is Jon Favreau, a 27-year-old prodigy who devoted two months to write the twenty-minute speech that his boss gave at the Lincoln Memorial at the start of his campaign. In addition to writing the Victory Speech for November 4, 2008, Favreau also penned the words that would have been spoken if Obama had lost. The President and his logographer understand each other so well that Obama calls Favreau a “mind-reader,” crediting him with almost telepathic empathy. This is the key to being a good “ghostwriter,” the English term for what we in Spanish call a negro, a writer on another’s behalf.

The outturn of this fruitful partnership is a corpus of oratorical pieces that already deserves a place of honor in the canon of American rhetoric. These fine, poetic speeches are also sharply effective in stirring their hearers to action. Another matter-and this is the vital challenge standing in the way of rhetoric, an art shaped, we ought not to forget, by the Sophists-is whether these beautiful pieces have any performative force, as a linguist might say. Put another way, the tough reality is that a wide gap yawns open between saying and doing; as the Spanish adage goes, obras son amores y no buenas razones, “good works, not fine words, are the stuff of love.” How to Do Things with Words is the title of a series of papers given at Harvard (and published posthumously in 1962) by John Langshaw Austin, a “linguistic” philosopher concerned not so much with the descriptive capacity of language as with its ability to affect reality, to shape the facts.

Hillary Clinton, in the heat of the primaries, mischievously said, “My opponent gives speeches. I offer solutions.” Obama risks being stigmatized as a purveyor of hot air in the wake of his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2009. Rather than an accolade warranted by the laureate’s actions, the prize seems merely to recognize the esthetics of Obama’s mentions of “peace” in his speeches, already acclaimed by some journalists as some of the most brilliant ever spoken by a President of the United States.

The American canon of oratory also includes a number of pieces delivered by statesmen who never rose to the highest office. The oratory of Barack Obama is indebted, in my view, to one in particular.

“I have a dream”

I am of course referring to the dazzling address that Martin Luther King delivered in Washington on August 28, 1963, at the crowning moment of a march on the federal capital by black civil rights campaigners claiming entitlement to work and freedom. Luther King’s speech went down in the annals of rhetoric under the title of its core phrase, which, by dexterous use of anaphora, operates as the central motif: “I have a dream.”

Martin Luther King, like Barack Obama 44 years later, first turns his hearers’ attention to the figure of “a great American,” President Lincoln, whose Emancipation Proclamation “came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves.” But that promise of work and freedom-the orator then continues with vibrant diction-has been dishonoured by the American nation, and the black community is now to raise its voice in protest, like a man given a bad check.

Following this apt simile, so close to the heart of a money-driven society like America, the speaker offers a short but powerful list of demands with which the movement has come to Washington. He uses this moment to identify with his audience as if he were no more than another participant in the march, and, addressing his brothers and sisters in the second person, he urges them, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.” And, as a proactive expression of his exhortation against discouragement, Martin Luther King then spoke the prophetic phrase that became the title of the entire speech, and that structures the final stretch of the oration by the figure of anaphora, the intermittent repetition of a single idea expressed in the same words: “I have a dream.”

The speaker’s dream is rooted from the outset in the so-called “American dream,” the attainment of which is presented as still in the future. It is the dream of seeing realized Thomas Jefferson’s proposition in the Declaration of Independence of 1776, “that all men are created equal,” as applied to the racial discrimination that at this time, 1964, still reigned. The dream is then particularized into a number of direct phrases that build up to a climax of hope propitiated by the repetition of the same form of words by the aroused audience. And the first fundamental anaphora, “I have a dream,” several times repeated, now gives way to a second anaphora that will serve to end the speech. If America is destined to be a great nation, it will see that dream come true and liberty will prevail for all its children.

To conclude his speech, the orator applies the figure of anaphora to the refrain of a popular song, written in 1832, titled “America”:” “Let freedom ring.” This phrase is repeated no fewer than ten times. Martin Luther King then links up this phrase with another, drawn from a well-known black spiritual: “Free at last.”

Almost half a century after “I have a dream,” the emblematic phrase of the leading figure of the Afro-American community-who tragically died in 1968, long before a black citizen reached the presidency of the United States-Barack Obama, in the speeches that were to raise him to the Oval Office, shared a number of features with Martin Luther King (who incidentally also won the Nobel Peace Prize).

In the key speech on the New Hampshire primary night, the man who was to become America’s first black president had heartfelt words of reminiscence for the black preacher “who took us to the mountaintop and pointed us the way to the Promised Land.” Both orators share a recognition of the legacy of Jefferson, Lincoln and the Founding Fathers; both use the language of the Christian community, gathered around the warmth of the Bible; both are masters of oratory, and successful rhetorical performers in front of their respective audiences. Obama even shares King’s recourse to the figure of anaphora, this time with a phrase which was likewise to achieve outstanding resonance: “Yes we can.”

“Yes we can”

One of the forms taken by the emergence of new communicative technologies now in the service of political discourse is exemplified by the fascinating way in which Obama’s slogan was made into a song produced by Will.I.Am (William James Adams), a member of the hip-hop band Black Eyed Peas, who then broadcast his work via YouTube and in February 2008 under the username WeCan08. Obama and his speechwriters were not wholly original in coining the phrase. The direct precedent of the “yes we can” tagline was Hispanic. In 1972, the Chicano human rights leader Cesar Chavez, who with Dolores Huerta and Philip Vera Cruz founded United Farm Workers, used the slogan Sí, se puede, which translates into English as “Yes, it can be done.”

The difference between these two phrasings in English, Chavez’ and Obama’s, has vital rhetorical significance. “Yes we can” contains a veritable compendium of expressive virtues, from the standpoint of the core idea, or invention, and in terms of its dispositio and elocutio. More, it is easy to remember, and the speaker’s actio or performance can readily arouse a collective response, as seen on YouTube: the entire audience put their voices together as a univocal chorus echoing the soloist. The crux, however, is that Chavez’ slogan was impersonal, whereas Obama transformed it into a form of words unambiguously encompassing the joint will of leader and people, united by that inclusive “we.”

The illocutionary and perlocutionary impact of the slogan can be elucidated by looking back at the tagline used for Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential campaign of 1952. A marketing expert, Peter G. Peterson, who later rose to be Richard Nixon’s Trade Secretary, crafted a phrase which, unlike Obama, Eisenhower for obvious reasons never included in his own speeches, but his followers chanted non-stop; it was touted relentlessly by the whole propagandistic armoury of Republican billboards, rosettes, medals, flags, banners, signage and badges.

Peterson, the mind behind all this, light on General Eisenhower’s nickname: “Ike.” Playing chiefly with the rhetorical figure of alliteration, Peterson tied “Ike” to the first-person pronoun, “I,” thus eliciting the speaker’s full engagement with what he or she was saying. Finally, the third alliterative term, linking the subject-the “I” instantiating each potential voter-to the object-the candidate’s nickname, “Ike,” was a verb with a similar vowel sound: the present indicative of “to like.” “I like Ike” became a round declaration by whoever spoke the slogan of his preference in the presidential race. “I like Ike:” therefore, my vote for the Presidency of the United States goes to Dwight Eisenhower and no other.

Obama’s slogan is doubtless more resonant than Eisenhower’s, and even more compact. Its three monosyllables make it memorable and give it prosodic, rhythmic and perlocutionary force. In those speeches in which Obama actually spoke the phrase “yes we can,” his audience would echo the same words, the meanings of which range over a mass of politically charged domains.

The first monosyllable of the tagline has the robustness of the affirmative. The speaker starts with an affirmation, with all that that implies as a positive bid to mobilize. And that “yes” forthwith engages with an inclusive “we,” the first-person plural pronoun that embraces both speaker and hearer, unlike Cesar Chavez’ precedent, “yes, it can be done,” which, as we have seen, has an impersonal tenor. Finally, the verb “can” carries power, strength, determination. An audience thus roused by a leader partakes in the meaning of these three monosyllables, which they can readily chant. The import of this is to say, aloud and in unison: “We affirm that together we shall achieve our aims because our combined strength enables us to do so.”

Rhetorical figures

The apostrophe is one of the figures classified in the art of rhetoric as “pathetic,” in the technical sense that these were devices appropriate to venting the passions. An apostrophe consists in expressly calling upon the audience, in a bid to create the climate for achieving the orator’s perlocutionary ends. With his “yes we can,” Obama peremptorily urged his followers to take on and successfully resolve the decisive challenges facing the health of the Republic.

“Yes we can” burst onto the scene of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in the course of his speech at Nashua on January 8, 2008, the night after the New Hampshire Democratic primary, which Obama lost to Hillary Clinton, his main rival. From the standpoint of rhetorical analysis, however, we should look at the full sweep of the future President’s twelve key speeches, from his candidacy announcement at Springfield on February 10, 2007, to the Victory Speech in Grant Park, Chicago, on November 4, 2008. The first speech to feature “Yes we can,” the New Hampshire address, was the third of a series that repays consideration as an integrated whole, in so far as, to different degrees and modulated in different ways, it contains the doctrinal message that Obama, as a presidential candidate, sought to convey to the American people. To this end, his speechwriters put in play a vast and powerful arsenal of rhetorical resources.

The first text I have chosen ─Obama’s announcement that he was to run for President─ is indisputably significant for its inventio, its content, its choice of venue (the Lincoln Memorial, erected on the site where the eponymous former president gave his famous “House Divided” speech) and its ingenious rhetorical design.

Obama draws inspiration from the founders of the Republic to promise what all politicians promise at the start of their campaigns: change. He lists the grave challenges faced by the nation and deplores the dearth of leadership and the pettiness of politics. In response to these blights and challenges, he ties together a chain of proposals, each starting with the anaphora, “Let’s be the generation that…” “Let’s be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age… that ends poverty in America… that finally tackles our health care crisis… that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil.”

There are no fewer than six uses of this same form of apostrophe, in which the leader stands shoulder to shoulder with his fellow citizens in the will to be the generation of change. One of these anaphoric devices engages another that already points to the main catchphrase with which we are concerned. “We can control costs… we can harness homegrown, alternative fuels… we can work together to track terrorists down…,” the speaker continues. One can make out the outlines of the rhetorical blueprint of the whole campaign, which was soon to find its ideal slogan in the “Yes we can” phrase. At Springfield, when Obama was still one of eight Democratic candidates competing for the nomination, he affirmed that “there is power in words… there is power in conviction.”

The anaphoric repetition of “we can” is the antidote to scepticism, of which the speaker is not unaware: “I know there are those who don’t believe we can do all these things.” He, however, does believe it, and his faith is reinforced by the certainty that he is not alone. Hence he makes an urgent call to action: “That is why this campaign can’t only be about me. It must be about us, it must be about what we can do together.” We cannot know whether at that early stage on the long road that was to take Barack Obama to the White House the “yes we can” phrase was already in his and his speechwriters’ minds, but what was present was the belief that together, leader and people, “they could.”

Sparks began to fly at the beginning of the following year. The second text with which we are concerned is Obama’s speech on Iowa Caucus night, January 3, 2008. Before the party assembly at Des Moines, the candidate started his short but powerful speech with an announcement of imminent change, a change he was ready to lead. His belief is again expressed in a string of four anaphoric paragraphs: “I’ll be a President who finally makes health care affordable… I’ll be a President who ends the tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas… I’ll be a President who [frees] this nation from the tyranny of oil… I’ll be a President who ends this war in Iraq.”

The speech concludes with a finely judged rhetorical and emotive gradation. Again using anaphora, the speaker prophesies the moment of change he is confident of achieving with his followers and the American people at large. “This was the moment,” he says, when “America remembered what it means to hope.” At this point, Obama and his logographer resort to the rhetorical figure of thought technically termed recrimination: “For many months, we’ve been teased, even derided for talking about hope,” the candidate complains. But, turning the accusation against the original accusers, he reminds us that “hope is the bedrock of this nation,” an allusion readily grasped by the audience in that it looks to one of the founding myths of the United States.

Obama himself embodies the truth of that foundational myth: “Hope is what led me here today, with a father from Kenya; a mother from Kansas; and a story that could only happen in the United States of America.” The leader uses his own self as a specific model of what he proclaims, enlisting another rhetorical figure already used in that same speech and featuring in several later orations.

Hypotyposis or evidential consists of a detailed description of a specific example that illustrates the speaker’s argument. Before using himself as such an example, Obama had evoked several instances of hope for change, which he had read in the eyes of “the young woman in Cedar Rapids,” whose night shift was not enough to pay health care for her sick sister, or had heard in “the voice of the New Hampshire woman” whose nephew was fighting in Iraq. This same hope had inspired a handful of colonials to rise up against an empire, and driven the American civil rights movement, led by James Bevel and Martin Luther King, to march from Selma to Montgomery, in the racist Alabama of the Ku Klux Klan and Governor Wallace.

Given these precedents, everything was in place for the candidate’s third landmark speech, the New Hampshire address at Nashua on January 8, 2008, to bring to light the slogan that was to usher Barack Obama into the White House and become a motto of universal resonance.

With admirable rhetorical skill, this speech lays out a range of political arguments-anticipated by earlier speeches-and naturally culminates with the emblematic phrase “yes we can,” three words which the speaker predicts will “ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea.”

Those political propositions herald a change wrought by a “new majority” that desires to end unaffordable health care, end tax breaks for companies that ship [American] jobs overseas, end schools blighted by “corridors of shame,”  and put a stop to the pattern of energy use that harms the planet and humanity.

By the figure of speech termed anadiplosis, Obama’s oration at Nashua rounds out each of these propositions with a repeated urge that “we can,” always attributed to the new majority: “we can do this with our new majority.” His words flow like a cascade until a final apostrophe to the audience arouses the response of a chorus speaking with one voice.

Returning to the figure mentioned earlier, recrimination, the leader places blame on an opposing chorus, the “chorus of cynics” who insist “we cannot do this.” Those who deny the possibility of hope in a nation in which hope is never vain: “But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.” A number of domestic evidential are then mentioned: the struggle of the Spartanburg textile worker, the plight of the Las Vegas dishwasher, the hopes of the little girl who goes to a crumbling school in Dillon and the dreams of the boy who learns on the streets of LA.

On this rugged foundation that befits the nature of the American people, Barack Obama raises his slogan like a standard, and with the choral approval of his audience he recites the phrase no fewer than nine times, before closing the speech with the final words: “yes we can.”

Once the phrase was firmly coined, Obama did not actually utter it even once in his next speech, a long and closely argued address. This was “A More Perfect Union,” which Obama gave on March 18, 2008, in Philadelphia, the city which for Americans is something like Cadiz is for us [Spain’s first democratic constitution was proclaimed in 1812 at Cadiz], for Philadelphia was where the Constitution was enacted on September 17, 1787, twenty-five years before Spain’s La Pepa.

The first sentence of its preamble gives Obama’s speech its title, and expresses one of the core ideas of his whole campaign ─the union of all Americans─ but, in particular, it opens with an emphatic “We,” echoing “Yes we can:” “We, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect union… do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.”

Obama again gives the lie to the naysayers who dismiss his candidature as a mere “exercise in affirmative action,” but he devotes the lion’s share of the address to a harsh recrimination directed against his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whose radical invective against the United States, as his reaction to the survival of racial discrimination, had compromised Obama’s electoral outlook. The candidate makes use of this sensitive juncture to assert that, for him, too, amicus Plato sed magis amica veritas, [Plato is my friend, but the truth is the greater friend].

He publicly professes his religious faith and at the same time evinces an outright rejection of extremism, always confident that “America can change,” and that only if we do as the Scriptures would have us do ─be brothers to our brothers─ Americans will bring truth to those words of the Constitution as to “a more perfect union.” To illustrate his argument, nothing could be better than a fresh evidential: the homely heroism of Ashley Baia, a 23-year-old woman volunteer working for the Obama campaign in Florence, South Carolina. Obama acknowledges having already told this anecdote at an event commemorating Martin Luther King at the Baptist church of Ebenezer, King’s own parish in Atlanta.

This display of religious faith-which would be unthinkable in a European politician, for instance-comes to the fore in the next piece I propose to examine: Obama’s talk given on Father’s Day, June 15, 2008, at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago. As though he himself were in holy orders, Obama begins his speech with a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount, as told by St Matthew. He follows this, again, with a mention of Martin Luther King, and then holds himself out as a statesman and father, advocating the education of his children as a responsibility not only of government officials but also of their own parents. He ends the address by characterizing his words as a prayer or call which he hopes will come true for his country “in the years ahead.”

A specific, chiefly economic theme runs through the immediately subsequent speech, delivered by Obama at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, on June 16. The title tells the story: “Renewing American Competitiveness.” This was not an occasion for the emotive force of a political harangue, but the candidate nonetheless refers to the Founding Fathers, who, having won independence, created a common market by fusing the economies of the first 13 states. He follows this up with a fierce attack on the neoliberal, militaristic and ultraconservative politics of George W. Bush and the Republican Party.

In stark opposition to their approach, he proposes as pillars of an economy that is to become more competitive in the globalized world a reinvigorated school system, innovative energy strategies, a more efficient health system and new investment in fundamental research and infrastructure. His closing words, however, point back to the central theme of his campaign: “Because when Americans come together, there is no destiny too difficult or too distant for us to reach.”

“Ich bin ein Berliner”

The second-to-last speech that Barack Obama gave in the year in which he won the presidency was also tightly focused on a specific subject, but for that very reason ─and, in particular, because of its venue─ it brings to mind another piece of oratory that has its place among the most memorable ever spoken by a President of the United States in the twentieth century.

Obama only revealed his foreign policy blueprint on the occasion of his visit to Berlin, on July 24, 2008.

Under the title “A World That Stands as One,” he sets out his understanding of cultural diversity, national interests, nations and the attitudes of all the world’s peoples. Facing a different audience-not his usual hearers, American electors-he presents himself as a citizen of the United States and fellow citizen of the world. He refers to the responsibility that attaches to global citizenship and acknowledges that the United States’ closest ally is still Europe, placing on record his hope that Europe will remain united. In our continent, he says, it is likewise meant to invoke that yearning for “a more perfect union,” in the words of the preamble to the American Constitution, which Obama mentions here in Berlin.

In a Berlin riven by the Wall, fraught with the intolerable tension of the Cold War and the partition of Germany, John Fitzgerald Kennedy had roused his German hearers when, on June 11, 1963, he opened his speech, delivered from the steps of the Rathaus Schoneberg, with a seeming paradox, spoken in German: “Ich bin ein Berliner” (nowhere in the speech was Kennedy to utter the English phrase “I am a Berliner”). The effect of these words was electrifying: the people of Berlin, besieged and alone in a redoubt of Western democracy behind the Iron Curtain ─an expression popularized by another great modern orator, Winston Churchill─ enthusiastically identified with the president of a power which only 18 years before had driven the Nazi regime to defeat. The audience gladly accepted Kennedy’s closing argument, in the manner of an epiphonema: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. Therefore, as a free man, I proudly say these words: Ich bin ein Berliner.”

This belated review of a small selection from the oratorical corpus of Barack Hussein Obama, brilliantly crowned by his Victory Speech of November 4, 2008, in Chicago’s Grant Park, reveals, among other rhetorical features like those discussed earlier, a consistent theme, developed over the course of the entire process in response to the emerging circumstances of the campaign and the venues of Obama’s rallies, in conjunction with an overarching strategy, which scholars of Baroque literature have often characterized as the coming together of two movements: first, the dissemination of arguments; secondly, a complementary gathering of arguments. This is precisely the characteristic tenor of this final oration, the Victory Speech.

The President Elect opens with an affirmation of the continuing force of the dream of “our Founders” and other great men, such as Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, “a preacher from Atlanta.” Those doubting the dream have finally been put right by American votes. To flesh out this concept of electoral vindication, Obama’s logographer again resorts to the figure of anaphora, four times repeating the same clause: “It’s the answer…” The answer is change, still “the true genius of America.”

The winning candidate, via the figure of apostrophe, then directly addresses his hearers- whether listening to him in Grant Park itself or by the medium of electromagnetic waves-as the “you” that has made all this possible. This apostrophe does not disclose a recrimination, like that which even on this joyous occasion Obama has cast in the direction of the cynics, but a veritable encomium or panegyric of those who have raised him to office, with their donations, their supportive looks and applause, and their votes, which are decisive for Obama to take on challenges as vast as “two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.” To personify the unanimous people as an individual, he proposes a new evidential, Ann Nixon Cooper, who that afternoon had stood in line to vote, 106 years of life behind her.

The cold shower of reality nonetheless encourages Obama to rebuild the strong bonds of alliance between President and people invoked by “yes we can,” the slogan which now, looking forward, takes on the shape of a rhetorical variation: “I promise you, we as a people will get there.”

YouTube provides a record of how Obama’s promise was met by the audience’s chorus of “yes we can.” This was precisely the closing phrase of the entire campaign, at the very moment at which the candidate was invested with the charisma of victory. His speech was again a masterpiece of that effective communicative technology that is none other than ancient rhetoric, as revived in the Internet Galaxy. Today, Obama’s speechwriters continue to exploit all the resources of the art of rhetoric, including the play on words that contrasts the interests of Wall Street-the inner sanctuary of capitalism-with those of Main Street, which stands for American towns and small cities, the emblem of the common citizenry.

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The Rhetoric of “Yes We Can”. (2021, Mar 29). Retrieved June 15, 2021, from