The Power of Rhetoric: Barack Obama’s Victory Speech

chapter 1


Following his victory in the 2008 elections, as the President-elect, Barack Obama gave his victory speech on the November 4th at the Grant Park, Chicago. Barack addresses a crowd of over two hundred thousand and was watched by millions of people in the USA and across the world through the television. His speech focused on major issues facing the USA and the world including the economic crisis, security, democracy, new jobs and opportunities for the future of America (Martin, p. 38).


Barack Obama employed rhetorical strategies just like many other politicians in this position to address and put emphasis on many different and controversial issues affecting the American people and at the same time reminding them of the importance to stay united as a people in what he referred to as the “American family”. This research utilizes a qualitative research approach to conduct a textual analysis of the rhetoric strategies and the genre characteristics used in this speech.

Using different rhetorical stools, Barack expressed his brilliance and power in his speech, being able to talk about issues that would otherwise not be essay to address. Using rhetorical devices allow the orator in a position such as Barak’s to use the political language as a means or a tool to bring together different parts of the nation rather than as a means to signal political ideologies. The employment of the rhetorical strategies by Barack, a speech breezes through the ears as a harmonious song, and the different issues sound like reading a piece of music for a difficult song and realizing as the chords change. Like most of his predecessors'' speech, such as Luther King's Barack's speech sounded better than it’s content (Johnson, p. 76).

1.1 Aim

The aim of this paper to analyse the rhetorical strategies and genre characterises used in Barack Obama's victory speech delivered on the 4th of November 2008.

1.2 Research questions

The research will seek to respond to the following question;

To what extent did Barack Obama use rhetorical strategies in his victory speech?

What are some of the rhetorical strategies used in Obama’s victory speech?

How did Barack Obama use rhetorical strategies and genre characteristics to evoke inspiration among his audience during this victory speech?

1.3 Methodology

This research will utilise the textual analysis as well as to conduct a body language analysis of the president's performance. The research will account the chosen theories of genre and rhetoric. Aristotle's Classical Rhetoric theories will be used to conduct the analysis of the rhetorical techniques and strategies given below which were used by the president in the Victory Speech. One of the things which will be analysed is the application of a rhetorical situation which accounts for several elements including the topic being discussed, his audience and the relationship between the topic being discussed, his audience as well as the rhetoric. The spatial arrangements' and rhetoric's reputation through which the rhetoric addresses an issue with an audience will also be accounted for in the rhetorical situation (Crowley and Hawhee, p.27).

The research will also analyse the proofs or arguments which are both of three types, pathos, ethos and logos, applied by the president to convince his audience or listeners (Rapp, p. site). The five Classical Canons or rhetoric division (inventio, Dispositio, Elocutio, Memoria and action) will also be analysed to make clear of the invention, the arrangement, the style (ornament and composition- Exordium, Confirmatio, with Assessment and conclusion) the memory as well as delivery of the speech (Crowley and Hawhee, p.36). This work will also examine the genre features of President Obama’s Victory Speech to find out whether or not he applied the traditional elements of the genre. The particular elements that will be analysed here include reconstitution and unification of the audience, venerating the nation’s past and rehearsing national values, putting forward political principles and agenda to be followed by the administration, appreciating and acknowledging the mandate given by the constitution and the people as well as possible limitations (Campbell and Jamieson, p.14).

1.4 Significance of the Research

This project will concentrate on President Obama’s victory speech to determine how he applied rhetorical strategies in delivering his message as well as evoke inspiration. The analysis of rhetoric has immense importance in a social and academic context.

chapter 2


2.1 Barack Obama to the 2008 Presidential Victory

Barack Obama born to Ann Dunham and Barak Obama Snr on August 4th, 1961 was elected the 44th American president, and the 1st black American president. His parents married on February 1964, just 6 months to Obama's birth, and divorced in March of 1964. Born to a black father and a white mother, Barack has talked about his struggle during his youth to reconcile his multiracial heritage especially concerning his social perceptions. His mother married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian in 1965 and 1967, Barack and his mother moved to Indonesia in 1967. Before returning to Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1971 Barack had started school in Indonesia (attended Sekolah Dasar Katolik Santo Fransiskus Asisi). In Hawaii, Barack attended Punahou School and latter Occidental College. In 1981, he transferred to Columbia University in New York and majored in political science thereafter graduating with BA in 1983 (Remnick, p.10).

His early career involved working as a financial researcher at the Business International Corporation, and for the New York Public Interest Research Group as a project coordinator. He then worked as a lecturer and a senior lecturer teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School in the years 1992 to 2004 and at the same time started his legislate career. Barack served as a State Senator to the Illinois Senate from 1997-2004. In November 2004, Barack resign from the Illinois Senate following his election to the US Senate. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack delivered a keynote speech which was not only received well but also elevated his status within the party (Atwater, p.125). During his time in US Senate, Barak worked in committees to legislate policies in health care, the income tax credit for the low working class and healthcare.

Barack announced his Presidential candidacy for the United States giving his speech at a stage inform of the Old State Capital, Illinois. This site was perceived as symbolic because it was used by Abraham Lincoln in 1858 when he delivered the historic speech “House Divided”. In his speech, Barack emphasised on the themes off hope and change (Menz, p. 23). These same themes were emphasised in his presidential victory speech in 2008. Against the Republican candidate, John McCain, Barack won with 365 electoral votes to 173 by McCain. Barack became the first Black American to be elected as US president and delivered his victory speech at the Grant Park Chicago. Upon the announcement of his win, the President-elect Barack Obama delivered his Election Night Victory Speech in which he emphasised on the American dream insisting that “change has come to America”. This passionate speech employed rhetoric, exciting the Americans and convincing the people to restore confidence in the nation and be part of the American family by striving to fulfill personal dreams (McCroskey, p. 67).

2.2 Previous Research on Rhetoric use

The history of the United States’ president’ discourse shows how they influenced public opinion on administration policies or historical movements by employing logical, emotional and ethical rhetorical appeals (Kennedy, p.9). Obama also followed his nation’s forefathers and applied rhetorical strategies and appeals in his victory speech that will be evaluated in this study. Analysis of rhetoric is a comprehensive assessment of various life aspects which affect people’s emotions or behaviour (Williams, p.18).

Barrows, (p.67) says "eloquent speech is not from lip to ear but rather from heart to heart". A powerful speech works like a spell over an audience making them bend their years as the phrases turn. A provoking speech works like magic, whether the speaker is pushing for the action or just communicating their plans. Wesley (p. 20) analysed top American speeches through TexStat, a textual analysis method, to determine the composition of a strong speech. Luther King’s “I have a dream” ranked the highest in this analysis. King used language in a more accessible way for all, the highly educated and common man.

Before analysing Obama's Victory Speech, it is crucial to understand the historical backgrounds of the genres, theories, and rhetoric of such speeches. There are similar trends in the rhetoric of American presidents (Lim, p.328). A look at the American president's rhetoric from 1789 through 2000 with the help of computer-assisted analysis of content revealed a substantial transformation of the presidential rhetoric (Lim, p.330). Previous research shows that the rhetoric used by Obama was different because of the change in the speaker's identity, the change in rhetorical audience and situations as well as the change in artefacts (Menz, p.20). Such literature will help shed light in analysing Obama’s Victory’s Speech.

2.3 Rhetoric strategies

Rhetoric in simpler terms means the ability to write or speak persuasively. The Aristotle rhetoric comprises of the first work about modes of persuasion which insists on three means of persuasion. According to the Aristotle rhetoric, persuasion in speech is made by the speakers’ character, the state of emotions of the audience and the speech in that when the audience can identify that the speech was persuasive (Williams, p. 90). In a second tripartite, Aristotle’s rhetoric produces persuasion through the species of the speech. Depending on the species, the speaker advices or warns the audience or the audience is supposed to judge the situation to determine what will happen after the speech. These speeches include the deliberative, judicial and epideictic. Aristotle, however, identified that not every rhetorician will be able to persuade the audience but rather must be able to discover the available mode of persuasion to convince. As such, rhetoric from Aristotle's perspective is a neutral device that a virtuous character will use to convince but only when used correctly.

When faced with a public audience, all speakers or writer need rhetoric tools to persuasively establish what is true and just and therefore the use of rhetoric is not just to outwit the audience. The audience of a public speech such as an inaugural speech by the present or an acceptance speech by a celebrity will have ordinary people who may are not necessarily able to perceive proof with the speech and therefore the need for rhetoric. Further, for the most topics presented to a public audience such as the presidential inaugural speech, there is not an exact type of idea and this may affect the ability of the audience to understand the different and controversial issues (Rapp, p.89). To make sure there is no doubt, the speaker needs to be credible which can they can only achieve using rhetoric tools.

2.4 Classical Rhetoric

The theory of Classical rhetoric dates back to the time of ancient scholars who included Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato. The theory was developed based on the observation that the orator has some influence on the listeners (McCroskey, p. 56). Language usage of any kind has some element of persuasion and theory of classical rhetoric was developed to evaluate this element of persuasion concerning how it works and then how it can be used. Three elements have been identified to be a requirement to enable effective communication and according to Aristotle, these elements ware the orator, the listener, and the speech. Changes in any of the three elements influence the resultant level of persuasion (Carey, p. 40).

The need for good persuasion ability in ancient Greek was important because they used a system of democracy. Therefore, to get support from people to be a leader, one had to impress them with good communication about how they would get their rights. All the great leaders learned the ability of rhetoric and made people believe in them by persuading about their ideology. Rhetoric was later taught in universities and was identified as social science (Carey, p. 40). The classical rhetoric theory is this an old as the theory of any language used today. To understand rhetoric, it is paramount to first understand the classical rhetoric theory.

The rhetoric theory is explained using five canons which are intervention, arrangement, style memory, and delivery. Intervention is the discovery of the most effective means of persuasion. The goal of the orator at this stage is to come up with ideas about what they will say and how they will say it to achieve the highest persuasion. Different factors must be considered and this stage for the best outcome and some of these are the audience; ideas must be tailored to a specific audience. The speaker must have a clear understanding of the audience's demographics, needs, likes and dislikes (Worthington,p. 47). The evidence to incorporate in the speech is another important factor; some audience is persuaded by hard facts and statistics while others are convinced by peers' testimony.

The third factors are the mean of persuasion; a mixture of the pathos, logos, and ethos will be convincing to some audience while other means will be more convincing to some than others. The goal is to suit the rhetoric to the audience. Timing is the other factor and it is important in that depending on the context, audiences are receptive to particular ideas. The duration aspect of timing is also important to consider in that in some situations, a long and well-developed speech may be appropriate in some circumstances while in others a short speech is more effective (Zarefsky, p. 616). An example of good timing is the Gettysburg speech by Lincoln and Everett. While Everett displayed the finest skill of rhetoric and oration in his two hours speech, Lincoln delivered his speech in less than five minutes. Today, 150 years later, while everybody recalls Lincoln and is quite aware of his words, no one remembers (Everett Torning, p. 30).

2.5 The Rhetoric means of persuasion

Rhetoric strategies have three technical modes of persuasion. As already identified, the Aristotle rhetoric persuasion depends on the speaker, the emotion of the audience and the speech or the argument itself. The persuasion is produced by the speaker; the audience must find the speaker credible. The credibility of the speaker is affected by their virtuous behaviour, have goodwill and demonstrate practical intelligence.

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Secondly, persuasion depends on the emotional state of the audience. People judge differently when in different situations say of joy or grief, as such, for the orator to persuade, they must arouse emotions. Judgments are generally altered by emotions. However, according to Aristotle, for the orator to bring the audience to a particular emotion, the orator must know the emotion (Charteris-Black, p. 23). For instance, to stir the emotion of anger, the orator must define anger, as say desire followed by pain caused by an undeserved slight directed against oneself. In the assumption that this is the meaning of anger, it is very easy for an orator to deduce a situation in which an audience will likely be angry and the probable reason for anger. The third means of persuasion is the speech or the argument because it is what is used to demonstrate. An argument is either an induction or a deduction. An induction argument is defined as the one proceed from particular perspectives to a generalisation. A deduction argument is one that proceeds from a point of suppositions and because of being true or certain cases being true, a different outcome is seen (Worthington,p. 45).

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