Analysis of Modern Rhetoric:
An Exploration of Obama’s Candidacy Speech
Rhetoric is, in its simplest form, communication. It is both conscious and subconscious in its attempt to convey a message. “How we perceive, what we know, what we experience, and how we act are the results of our own symbol use and that of those around us; rhetoric is the term that captures all these processes. For us, rhetoric is the human use of symbols to communicate” (Foss et al. 1). Being that rhetoric is simply symbolic communication, it stands to reason that almost anything can be rhetorical. Words, no matter their delivery, have the ability to expose perspective on behalf of both writer and reader. “[R]hetoric is symbol, by which we mean something that stands for or represents something else by virtue of relationship, association, or convention” (Foss et al. 2). Such is the case throughout the existence of rhetoric.
Rhetoric has experienced six distinct periods since its formal inception in the fourth century B.C.E.; these periods include classical, medieval, renaissance, enlightenment, nineteenth-century, and modern rhetoric. Though each period had obvious and unique characteristics from those surrounding it, a common thread exists among them all. Rhetoric was used with the aim of delivering a message to an audience; in most cases, this message was intended to be persuasive. And, modern rhetoric is no different from traditional styles in this aspect. The same basic concept has reigned true for centuries. However, there are distinguishable differences between modern rhetoric and prior periods. In many ways, modern rhetoric is far more relatable, analytical, and applicable than the flowery language and roundabout arguments that marked early classical and medieval rhetoric. Barack Obama’s official presidential candidacy speech provides a strong example of modern rhetoric as exists in the 21st century, particularly when exploring elements of delivery, language, audience, and culture.
In the winter of 2007, Barack Obama, a young senator from Illinois, announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. The 30-minute speech was televised nationally to an audience of thousands; it marked the first in a long string of speeches that would rally millions of voters and, ultimately, help him to win the election. Obama’s candidacy announcement is demonstrative of contemporary rhetoric in that it was written with the specific intention of speech. “Departments of speech formed in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, breaking away from English departments, whose primary focus was literature. The curriculum of the new speech department was based on [public speaking]” (“Modern” 1186). Rather than a press release that textually announced Obama’s candidacy, he chose an oratory method. This is a far cry from textbook-based rhetoric that plagued post-Gutenberg printing press eras. After this advancement, the tradition of oration was somewhat lost because it was no longer necessary. Rhetoric developed an audience of readers rather than listeners; rhetoric was first for text, then – only maybe – for speech. However, required business skills of the 20th century ignited newfound interest in teaching speech and presentation skills. “The speech course [continues] to be quite popular with students for whom the ability to speak confidently, both on the job and in community life, may be as important as the ability to write well” (“Modern” 1186). Such education has persisted into present day and has dramatically influenced modern rhetoric. Speech is now a commonplace in academic, political, and professional arenas. Obama’s announcement is highly reflective of a society that encourages oration, specifically in the realm of politics. Academia has helped to solidify the penchant for beautifully delivered speeches as society’s marker for success.
Language choice is another element of Obama’s announcement that reveals its achievement as an example of modern rhetoric. The speech begins with a very individualistic approach. For example, he says:
[L]et me tell you how I came to be here…I moved to Illinois over two decades ago. I was a young man then, just a year out of college. [A] group of churches had offered me a job as a community organizer for $13,000 a year. And I accepted the job, sight unseen, motivated then by a single, simple, powerful idea – that I might play a small part in building a better America. (Obama)
The speech continues for several minutes with reference to personal experiences, beliefs, and accomplishments of the senator. In sharing personal stories, Obama is establishing credibility for himself. Whereas the earliest forms of rhetoric depended on group involvement and collaboration, modern rhetoric values individual ethos. Political upheaval in 1960s and 1970s America effectively worked to prioritize personal thoughts over popular opinion. “Personal writing, the individual’s search for an ‘authentic voice,’ was regarded as a form of opposition to the impersonal and oppressive Establishment…” (“Modern” 1185). This trend is still echoed in modern politics as personal statements of opposition are those most loudly heard and appreciated by citizens. Contemporary society is far more individual-centric than existed in Aristotelian times. Understanding this, Obama strategically began the speech with a personal statement that would help to better connect his audience. Personal expression is a prominent marker of modern rhetoric, as it was only dubbed acceptable within recent decades; therein, Obama’s speech is a key example of modern rhetoric.
Whereas statements of opposition are best relayed through individual testimonials, audience applicability is equally important in modern rhetoric. Obama does a flawless job melding the two components together. He seamlessly transitions from personal history to the duties of all citizens without hesitation or awkwardness.
I know I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change. The genius of our founders is that they designed a system of government that can be changed…Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what’s need to be done. Today we are called once more – and it is time for our generation to answer that call. (Obama)
In modern rhetoric, personal statements rouse groups of people in resistance to or defense of something while embracement and connection actually motivate people to take action of these assertions. In addressing the audience as “we,” Obama gives validation to a cause. “Our learning comes from interpretation, our disciplines grow by argument, our communities cohere through discourse, our ideologies are structures of persuasion” (“General Introduction” 15). Obama establishes himself as a leader initially with “I” statements then invites the audience to join his effort with “us” and “we” declarations. Unity is necessary in modern rhetoric to affirm community support. Society demands not only a strong leader, but also one with a collaborative, inclusive cause.
The cultural perspective associated with Obama’s candidacy announcement is another defining feature of modern rhetoric. As obvious as this might seem, Obama’s speech was history making because of his race. Just a few decades ago, African American rhetoric was largely ignored by mainstream society. It took the persistent efforts of dozens of rhetoricians and an enormous societal uprising to rid America of racist mindsets. “Enlarged as a theoretical resource, rhetoric has also expanded its grasp of the ways that women, people of color, and cultural or ethnic minorities use language to gain a hearing for themselves” (“Modern” 1183). As people of color are becoming increasingly involved in facets of politics and business, rhetoric will evolve to better facilitate their cultural norms and expectations. In general, the sheer fact that Obama was able to make the announcement of his presidential candidacy is a marker of modern rhetoric; quite simply, such a declaration would not have been possible in early periods. Obama’s speech is a powerful demonstration of rhetoric’s progression from ancient Greek times to contemporary, limitless opportunities.
It is interesting to compare traditional forms of rhetoric with modern interpretations as similarities and differences are readily apparent. In fact, there has been little difference in regards to the main goal of rhetoric; just as ancient orators hoped to inspire a crowd to some particular action or belief, contemporary politicians and lecturers desire an audience to rally for their cause as well. In its simplest, truest nature, rhetoric is simply communication. Not much has been lost in the way of this. This being said, modern rhetoric has changed a great deal in the finite details. This evolution includes delivery, language, audience, and culture. Modern rhetoric is far more accessible and relatable than existed a millennia ago, with an entirely new audience and culture with which to influence or draw inspiration. Digitalization has provided the masses an opportunity to access rhetoric like never before as well as enables the “everyday” individual an opportunity to broadcast his own materials. Contemporary rhetoric is less elitist, to be blunt. Approaches to rhetoric are quite different from ancient methodologies. As exemplified in Obama’s announcement of presidential candidacy, modern rhetoric has the innate ability to fuse traditional, pure practices of rhetoric with globalized and relatable traits of the present.
Foss, Sonja K., Karen A. Foss and Robert Trapp. Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, 2001. Print.
“General Introduction.” The Rhetorical Tradition. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 1-16. Print.
“Modern and Postmodern Rhetoric: Introduction.” The Rhetorical Tradition. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 1181-1205. Print.
Obama, Barack. “Our Past, Future and Vision for America.” Obama Presidential Announcement. Springfield, IL. 10 Feb. 2007. Address. Web. http://www.barackobama.com. 28 Nov. 2010.