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John F. Kennedy introduced me to political oratory when I was nine. I have heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. No doubt the rhetorical skills of that trio hooked me on politics for life.

Forty-eight years later, I am captivated once again by a great orator, President-Elect Barack Obama.

Since many credit Obama's election in large measure to his oratorical skills, an examination of his rhetoric is in order. This diary, which you can blame on Jane Lew, examines Obama's oratory in terms of content, structure, and delivery.

I've included just one embed but will provide links so folks with dial-up can access this diary before January.

I apologize for the length of this diary. I hope you will enjoy it.

Well, here goes:


I highly recommend you read this article by Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian (H/T DeminWisconsin). (I'll talk more about this article in the Content and Structure sections.) Higgins, an expert on ancient Greece, notes:

There have been many controversial aspects to this presidential election, but one thing is uncontroversial: that Obama's skill as an orator has been one of the most important factors - perhaps the most important factor - in his victory. The sheer numbers of people who have heard him speak live set him apart from his rivals - and, indeed, recall the politics of ancient Athens, where the public speech given to ordinary voters was the motor of politics, and where the art of rhetoric matured alongside democracy.

Obama has bucked the trend of recent presidents - not excluding Bill Clinton - for dumbing down speeches. ...Obama's speeches, by contrast, flatter their audience. His best speeches are adroit literary creations, rich...with allusion, his turn of phrase consciously evoking lines by Lincoln and King, by Woody Guthrie and Sam Cooke. Though he has speechwriters, he does much of the work himself. (Jon Favreau, the 27-year-old who heads Obama's speechwriting team, has said that his job is like being "Ted Williams's batting coach.")

That Obama crafts many of his own speeches is well-known. Perhaps his most enduring speech to date, the speech on race in Philadelphia, known as the "More Perfect Union" speech, was written almost entirely by Obama. Wikipedia cites the WaPo as saying that

Obama's usual speechwriting practice during the 2008 campaign was to discuss major themes with speechwriter Jon Favreau, let Favreau write a draft, and then edit the result. However, on Saturday, March 15, Obama dictated a lengthy draft of this speech to Favreau, who edited the speech the next day. Obama stayed up until 3:00 a.m. Sunday night working on the speech, and continued to work on it Monday and in the early hours of Tuesday. He sent his final draft of the speech to Favreau and campaign strategist David Axelrod at 2:00 am Tuesday morning.[15] Obama later said that as he wrote the speech, he tried to ensure that his mother, Ann Dunham, would have trusted its sentiments.

Whether written directly by Obama or edited by him, his speeches help us gain insight into the man himself.


One of the early criticisms of Obama was that he was all rhetoric, fancy words but no substance. I always felt this accusation was a canard. I listened to almost every speech Obama gave, and he often gave very substantive speeches on the most important issues (See Appendix). He also gave standard stump speeches and did town hall meetings and debates. The "no substance" argument always was, IMHO, a red herring.

But there is no doubt that Obama followed some winning strategies when it came to the content of his speeches. Higgins points out that Obama's oratory

conforms to the tripartite ideal laid down by Aristotle, who stated that good rhetoric should consist of pathos, logos and ethos - emotion, argument and character.

Higgins argues that Obama excels at ethos, especially when he tells his own personal life story which

manages to convey the sense that not only can he revive the American dream, but that he personally embodies - actually, in some sense, is - the American dream.

Ryan Headley at has a different take:

Obama uses pathos, and not just effectively but masterfully. He uses it to play on the heartstrings of all Americans. He commands his speech like Martin Luther King Jr. with a steady articulation and striking emotional overtones, while recreating the speeches and rehashing the ideas brought forth by Abraham Lincoln, to create a sort of superpower behind the podium.


His speeches are warm and consoling and it becomes increasingly hard not to jump on the Obama band wagon each time he makes a speech. The thought of hope and a brighter future plays on our hearts and we are drawn in like moths to a flame. The biggest factor that plays on many people's minds this primary season when they're standing in that voting booth is: If I don't do my part to get this man elected will I always wonder what could have been? This is the effect that we have on others when we tap into their emotions.

Beyond the Aristotelian analysis, Andrea Useem at says that  

[Obama's] ability to speak the language of "American civil religion" is what makes him such a powerful speech giver.

American Civil Religion is at once a concept that’s been ripped to shreds in academia and a concept so embedded in everyday culture that many people find it quite obvious. The idea, first presented by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967, said that America has a special civil religion, one that is rooted in Christianity but national and democratic in its expression. He wrote:

Although matters of personal religious belief, worship, and association are considered to be strictly private affairs, there are, at the same time, certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share. These have played a crucial role in the development of American institutions and still provide a religious dimension for the whole fabric of American life, including the political sphere. This public religious dimension is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals that I am calling American civil religion.

Consider this Obama quote, which is rife with the language of "civil religion":

Americans are a decent, generous, compassionate people, united by common challenges and common hopes.

Andrew Gimson in The Telegraph taps into the same vein. Although he doesn't call it "American civil religion," Grimson's meaning is clear:

Here is one of the most sympathetic things about Mr Obama: his pride in the American tradition. At heart, America remains an 18th century republic, and as such is far more old-fashioned than Britain. In America, it is still quite natural to express an unabashed patriotism.

It is very easy to scoff at the Americans when they fall into their periodical fits of optimistic moralising, as if the world could ever be made perfect. But after hearing Mr Obama speak beneath the venerable oak trees at the College of Charleston, founded in 1770, I went into St Michael's Church, built in 1752, and came upon an inscription in memory of the Hon Henry Deas (1770-1846), who played a leading role in the politics of South Carolina and of whom it is said: "With earnest patriotism and enlightened devotion to constitutional liberty, he zealously engaged in eventful political measures [and] by his graceful, earnest and persuasive eloquence and by the moral force of a pure and elevated character exerted a prominent influence in public affairs."

That is the tradition which Mr Obama is trying to carry forward....

Finally, no discussion of content would be complete without mention of Obama's influences. Quoting Ekaterina Haskins, professor of rhetoric at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, Stephanie Holmes of the BBC says,

"He has certainly studied all of his predecessors, he is quite aware of the rhetorical heritage that he draws on," Ms Haskins explains. "He clearly sees himself as a descendant of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King."

"He is summoning the ghosts of previous leaders and presidents who Americans have learnt to revere."

On winning the election, his Chicago address echoed two of the most famous speeches in US history - Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg address and the words spoken by assassinated civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King the day before his death.

Holmes notes the similarity between this, by MLK:

I may not get there with you but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.

And this, by Obama:

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there.

Also worth noting is another Helium article by Matthew Reed which highlights how Obama uses his knowledge of history effectively in his speeches.


The best discussion of structure is found in the Higgins article. She emphasizes Obama's classical use of techniques developed by Cicero, including the tricolon, praeteritio, antonomasia, anaphora, and epiphora. Higgins clears up the jargon with understandable definitions and relevant examples from Obama's speeches.

However, Higgins also notes that Obama's use of repetitive phrases like "Yes we can"

might more readily summon up the call-and-response preaching of the American church than classical rhetoric. And, of course, Obama has been influenced by his time in the congregations of powerfully effective preachers. But James Davidson, reader in ancient history at the University of Warwick, points out that preaching itself originates in ancient Greece. "The tradition of classical oratory was central to the early church, when rhetoric was one of the most important parts of education. Through sermons, the church captured the rhetorical tradition of the ancients. America has preserved that, particularly in the black church."

Reed also notes Obama's use of repetition in his speeches and insightfully analyzes how Obama manages to "balance" his approach:

Obama uses language that is plain without being simple. He is able to communicate to individuals without advanced degrees, but does not use condescension. For example, in a campaign speech in New Orleans, Obama stated,

If catastrophe comes, the American people must be able to to call on a competent government. When I am President, the days of dysfunction and cronyism in Washington will be over. The director of FEMA will report to me. He or she will have the highest qualifications in emergency management. And I won't just tell you that I'll insulate that office from politics-I'll guarantee it, by giving my FEMA director a fixed term like the director of the Federal Reserve. I don't want FEMA to be thinking for one minute about the politics of a crisis. I want FEMA to do its job, which is protecting the American people-not protecting a President's politics (February 7, 2008).

Here, Obama uses the words "cronyism," "dysfunction," "qualifications," and "competent." These are not words that are particularly common in most Americans' everyday speech. Yet, the words are spaced evenly throughout the paragraph and are balanced by the use of contractions, like "I'll" and "don't."

Obama always addresses his audiences as educated adults. He assumes that his listener is serious and attentive, probably because he is serious and attentive himself. He makes his points real by using concrete examples of real people and real events. He makes his rhetoric accessible by grounding it in the reality of the lives of his listeners.

But most of all, he can deliver.


OK, start with the package. (See Al Rodgers for the good eye candy.) I'm a straight guy, but its pretty obvious that tall, dark, and handsome might be appealing, even with those big ears. The megawatt smile doesn't hurt, either. And there's his cool, calm, and collected manner and his ironic sense of humor. But the real killer for an orator like Obama is that magnificent baritone voice. As Useem notes

Juliet Eilperin wrote in Slate magazine back in January that Obama’s smoking habit, which deepens his already resonant voice, "could win him the presidency."

Whether smoking is an asset is debatable, but his pipes certainly make this bit of praise from Grimson almost literally true:

Just as those who love opera will do almost anything to hear a favoured singer, so those of us who value the art of rhetoric want to go and hear Mr Obama.

The idea that Obama turns words into music is a common theme. The most obvious example is's Yes We Can Song. (As an aside, I think this was a pivotal work that brought many younger voters to Obama.)

Holmes says

...the range of his delivery - the way he alters his pace, tone and rhythm - is closer to song.

"His style of delivery is basically churchy, it's religious: the way he slides down some words and hits others - the intonation, the emphasis, the pauses and the silences," [Philip Collins, a speech-writer for former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair] explains.

"He is close to singing, just as preaching is close to singing. All writing is a rhythm of kinds and he brings it out, hits the tune. It's about the tune, not the lyrics, with Obama."

Watch an interesting interview with John McWhorter, a linguist at the Manhattan Institute, and Megan McArdle of The Atlantic as they discuss Obama's speeches. McWhorter emphasizes the music and cadence.

The best video I saw was this one with Dr. Michael Eric Dyson for Ebony. Dyson speaks of Obama's ability to relate to voters and touches on the racial aspects of Obama's skills.

Higgins ends on this note:

In [Cicero's] book On The Orator, he argues that real eloquence can be acquired only if the speaker has attained the highest state of knowledge - "otherwise what he says is just an empty and ridiculous swirl of verbiage". The true orator is one whose practice of citizenship embodies a civic ideal - whose rhetoric, far from empty, is the deliberate, rational, careful organiser of ideas and argument that propels the state forward safely and wisely. This is clearly what Obama, too, is aiming to embody: his project is to unite rhetoric, thought and action in a new politics that eschews narrow bipartisanship. Can Obama's words translate into deeds? The presidency of George Bush provided plenty of evidence that a man who has problems with his prepositions may also struggle to govern well. We can only hope that Obama's presidency proves that opposite.

But we'll give the last word to Obama. Yes, he borrowed some of his words from his friend and campaign adviser Governor Deval Patrick, but he states the case for oratory very well here.


Here are links to some of Obama's best-known and loved speeches as well as MLK's "I Have a Dream." It is interesting to listen again to some of these and apply the critics' analyses to them.

MLK's "I Have a Dream" Speech

Unfortunately, we have no video or audio of Lincoln, but I thought you might enjoy Sam Waterston's recitation of The Gettysburg Address.

Obama's Election Night Victory Speech

Obama's Nomination Acceptance Speech

Text of the 2002 Anti-Iraq War Speech

2002 Anti-Iraq War Speech, Delivered by Supporters

Obama's 2004 Keynote Address at the DNC

Obama's Iowa Victory Speech

Obama's "Yes We Can" Speech in New Hampshire

Obama's "More Perfect Union" Speech on Race, Text and Video

Obama's Berlin Speech

Obama's Education Policy Speech

Obama's Speech on Patriotism

Obama's Speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church 1/20/08

Obama's Speech at AIPAC

Oh, yeah, one last thing: Barack is not the only Obama who can give a speech:

Michelle Obama at the DNC

Originally posted to Dragonation™ on Fri Dec 05, 2008 at 02:01 PM PST.

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