Rhetorical Analysis of Obama’s Yes We Can Speech
President Barack Obama is one of the best orators in the resent times, owing to his powerful speeches, some of which have helped him attain the presidency. Yes We Can is one of the best speeches Obama presented after his presidential victory in 2008. Obama delivered his Yes We Can speech to the fellow Democrats in Chicago, at a time when he positioned himself to run for the Presidency of the United States. His rhetorical skills are evident in the use of certain elements like ethos and pathos. This work seeks to identify some of the rhetorical skills Obama employs in his speech and the effect they have on the audience. As noted above, a good orator must be in a position to pass the message using certain rhetorical elements. One important theme that Obama presents is change. He sets himself to be the person through whom the change will come to America.
Emotional engagement of the audience helps ensure that the audience connects with the speaker. According to McCarthy & Hatcher (10-12), a good orator must put into use pathos in order to appeal to the emotions of the audience. The audience should engage their emotions in the speech in order to believe and trust in the message therein. Therefore, a good speech requires that the speaker work towards he audience investing their emotions in the speech. In Yes We Can, Obama states that, “Our stories are singular but our destiny is shared, a new dawn of American leadership is at hand” (Rosenfeld 1). He also goes ahead to tell the audience that, “let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility” (Rosenfeld 1). Such quotes are effective in assuring the audience that his presidency will go beyond the physical aspects towards becoming a turning point that will be part of the American history and heritage. In the speech, Obama alludes to the fact that all people must take part in building the nation, an important point that resonates well with the Democratic Party audience. Human beings feel good with the perception to have contributed to a given change.
The ability of the speaker to connect and identify with the audience requires rhetorical skills known as ethos. Ethos helps in creating a strong bond and confidence between the orator and the audience (McCarthy & Hatcher 9). Positive use of ethos helps diffuse certain suspicion, attitude and lack comfort that the audience may have had prior to the speech. Barack Obama achieves this by making emphasis on his patriotism to America before his party members. He does this to assure the people of his undivided attention, concern and love for the country. His audience is made up of the liberal democrats who yearn for a leader who can unite the whole country, irrespective of the racial, economic and social divides that may exist. In order to show his allegiance, he stands near the American flag, a symbol of power and authority. Therefore, it is always important for an orator to develop trust by presenting himself or herself in a respectful manner. Obama also presents himself as a person who understands and values the American culture and traditions. The appearance of the family on the stage also works to reinforce his commitment to the family values as per the American aspirations by coming out as a ‘family man’. Therefore, all of these things work to make a positive connection and ethos between Obama and the audience at the convention.
Obama’s ability to use ethos is evident as he presents his speech. It is obvious that he understands his audience very well as he works towards encouraging patriotism using certain quotes. He quotes some of the famous former American iconic leaders. For instance, he says, “who still wonders if the dreams of our founders are alive in our time” and “a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this earth” (Rosenfeld 1). Such quotes work to build a strong connection with some of the respected leaders in American, those leaders who stood for human rights, freedom and liberty. He quotes Abraham Lincoln in order to portray himself as man who shares in ideals of a great leader who came from the same state as himself. Such a connection elevates him as well as connecting him to the change that America desperately requires. In effect, he shows the audience that his presidency would keep alive the hopes and aspirations against of the founding fathers of the country. An audience responds well to the audience with the ability to connect with some of the leaders who represent liberty and justice.
Politics requires the continued support of the people and loyalty of everybody in the country. The Yes We Can speech attempts to reach out to other parties that have not supported him. He knows that leadership requires the sustained support of all people; therefore, he reaches out to the Republicans in order to work together towards building one nation with the same ideals. Obama says, “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” (Rosenfeld 1). This is proper way of putting a nation together, especially after some bitter campaign period. He understands that he will not be the president of his supporters only, but of all Americans. Mentioning different demographic origins attempts to appeal makes Obama’s leadership that unites everybody, irrespective of the differences. There is a loud applause when Obama mentions ‘gay’, considering that the audience is made up of the liberal Democrats, an affirmation that his leadership accommodates everyone.
Slowly, Obama builds up emotions of the audience until reaches the peak when the people break down with chants of “yes we can!” He manages to maintain the emotions by promising the people that the American Constitution and the support of all the supporters will work towards defeating all external threats targeted to the nation. He takes time to invest in the emotions of the audience by presenting himself as a hope for the future by noting that, “When there was despair in the Dust Bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself… Yes we can”. This works to appeal to the audience that he is a solution to the poverty and famine as well as the Global Financial Crisis that shook the American economy. He assures the audience that he is up to the task of leading America in conquering all challenges.
Obama’s Yes We Can speech stands out as an important piece of narrative that shows the power of a good orator. This is an indication that a good speech can create emotions and persuade the audience to believe in the orator. It is also important to note that communication skills brought forth by the Ancient Greek scholars are still effective to date. In the natural way, most speeches should entail different elements like the ethos, pathos and logos in order to create the required effect (McCarthy & Hatcher 9). However, Obama decides not employ much of logos in the speech, unlike in the previous speeches. The absence of the use of logos does in the speech does not cause ineffectiveness, because he still manages to arouse the emotions of the audience to believe in him and his leadership.
Yes We Can is a speech that presents hope to a nation that suffers from a financial crisis, unemployment and general despair. It stands out as one of the great speeches that define leadership legacy of President Obama. For long, United States had presented herself as a place where everybody had equality and freedom; however, there had never been a president of African-American decent. This speech may have made great contributions into making Obama one of the great leaders in the United States. A good orator should be able to inspire the audience to believe in whatever he says. Great orators are known to be social change agents by their words, something that puts Obama as an influential person in the American. He delivered the speech America was undergoing numerous economic and social challenges; however, he has finished his two terms when things are better, meaning that the speech was a true reflection of his abilities.
McCarthy, Patsy and Hatcher, Caroline. Speaking Persuasively. Crow’s Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2002.
Rosenfeld, Steven. ‘Yes, We Can’ — The Magic Behind Obama’s Message. AlterNet. Accessed on February 3, 2017 from http://www.alternet.org/story/73014/’yes,_we_can’_–_the_magic_behind_obama’s_message.