Obama’s Yes We Can: Rhetorical Analysis. (A Dime A Dozen)

by SC

Question: The purpose of this exercise is to apply rhetorical analysis techniques to a published argument in any format. (1000 words)

(To all my American readers, please understand I am writing in Australian English, thus the spelling may differ slightly, this is done intentionally since I am submitting this piece to an Australian university)

If you are interested in reading another rhetorical analysis I wrote about another American politician, the click here.

Barack Obama’s election in 2008 symbolised a change in American culture and social thinking. For a nation which had prided itself on equality and freedom, Obama’s presidential victory marked the first time a non-Anglo-Saxon man had taken office. His now famous Yes We Can speech was addressed to his Democrats in Chicago, an audience who generally sided with leftist liberal thinking. This aspect he clearly uses to his advantage in his speech. In addition to building upon a very favourable ethos, the speech attempts to use pathos to connect with the audience by uniting them through a shared sense of patriotism. The celebratory nature of the speech meant that logos was rarely used, however this was a deliberate choice and arguably strengthened the speech. The Yes We Can speech is an outstanding example of a highly skilled orator’s ability to persuade, manipulate and influence an audience.

Fostering a positive ethos is an essential part in creating rapport between the orator and the audience; it disarms any suspicions or concerns which they might have originally held. Obama, a shrewd politician attempts to emphasise his American patriotism in order to establish a common connection between him and his primary demographic; liberal Americans. He does this by standing in front of American flags, dressed in a suit, a symbol of power and might particularly in the western world. In order to create trust, it is important to establish the essence of ‘good will’ in one’s character, by presenting himself or herself in a friendly and respectful manner to their audiences. In doing so Obama gives the image that he is someone who understands the culture of America’s traditions. The appearance of the Obama family on stage is also done in order to highlight his role of the ‘family man.’ By portraying the most powerful man in America as a relatable middle class man, Obama is subconsciously trying to establish an emotional connection between his projected ethos and the audience.

Obama’s efforts to maintain his American ethos is reflected within his speech as well and clearly he has a strong understanding of his target audience. Obama taps into this stream of patriotism in the quotes “who still wonders if the dreams of our founders is alive in our time” and “a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this earth” By referencing the most influential and respected men in American history, Obama is building a metaphorical bridge between himself and these men who stood for the American ideals of justice, freedom and liberty. By quoting Abraham Lincoln; a man whose roots come from the city he is speaking in, Obama is able to lend credibility to his ethos by associating himself with a past president. Obama is also connecting his presidency with the romanticized American past and ideals and gives the notion that America will continue to stand as a beacon of hope against tyranny and injustice.

A skilled orator will be able to manipulate pathos in order to get the audience to emotionally invest into their message. Whilst pathos lacks the science and reason which logos presents, the ability to inspire is an immensely powerful tool to create social change. The underlying sense of nationalism is evident in the quote “let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility” and “our stories are singular but our destiny is shared, a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.” Within both these quotes, Obama transcends the physical by giving the impression that his election victory stands as a watershed in American history. The hyperbole whips the crowd into a frenzy since human nature instinctively longs to feel like it has contributed to something that surpasses them as an individual. The allusion that Obama requires the full participation of the nation to bring about change is a nod towards the democratic foundation of America. It also builds trust between the audience and himself as now there is a feeling of mutual benefits which underlines both parties’ relationship with each other.

As a politician it is important to sustain the support and loyalty of the nation. Obama’s Yes We Can speech attempts to reach out and connect with every demographic especially the Republican voters who have yet to show allegiance towards Obama. This is seen in the quote “it’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled” Understanding that the audience was mainly comprised of Democrats who usually hold a more liberal perspective, there was a huge roar of approval when Obama mentioned “gay.” By reaffirming the values of his target audience, Obama was able to reinforce the credibility and his ‘good sense.’ By specifically mentioning every demographic, Obama is attempting to create a personal relationship with all Americans and highlight the inclusive and welcoming nature of his liberal government. It should be noted this quote is strangely reminiscent of the lists within Whitman’s poetry; Whitman the quintessential American poet believed that lists was a democratic method of presenting information.

Slowly there is build-up of emotion within Obama’s speech until the energy peaks, resulting in a release of emotions as the crowd chants “yes we can.” This crescendo of emotion continues as Obama promises them that the “timeless American creed” combined with united support from his followers will overcome all external difficulties. “When there was despair in the Dust Bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself… Yes we can” By alluding to times of crisis before quickly presenting his presidency as the solution, Obama convinces the audiences to emotionally invest into him as a symbol of hope, presenting himself as the more attractive alternative juxtaposed to famine and poverty. Obama’s word attempt to rejuvenate a nation when notions of American supremacy was rocked by the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

The Yes We Can speech stands as a testament to the power a skilled orator can hold over a crowd and how the arts of persuasion and communication created in Ancient Greece still influences today’s modern society. Whilst most speeches contain elements of pathos, logos and ethos, Obama decided to largely forgo logical arguments since they were already explored in the speeches leading up to his victory. However this doesn’t weaken Obama’s message, in fact the strong themes of hope and persistence may have revitalised the nation during a bleak period of financial collapse. Personally I believe this speech stands as the crowning moment in Obama’s political career, it was beautifully constructed and delivered even more powerfully. Reflecting how a great orator can cut across the social division within a community and inspire all with their words.

Chingy out.