Posted by: George | September 8, 2012

Obama’s DNC Speech: Timelines as an Argument


The pundits seem to agree that Obama gave a good, but not great, speech at the Democratic National Convention last Thursday night. They say it was not quite as inspiring as they expected, that he didn’t hit the high bar established by his wife or Bill Clinton, that it didn’t have enough details . . .

While the president’s delivery did not quite match Michele’s or Bill’s (he relied a little more on the Teleprompter), it was an exceptionally good speech. The pundits are pretty much wrong across the board. It was, I will argue here, a fitting conclusion to the convention and it built upon the speeches that came earlier. As will be pointed out by Michael Kleine, my colleague and friend, in a forthcoming collection of essays on Obama’s rhetoric, Obama often uses Cicero’s six-part structure. In this post, I will use that structure to provide my read on the speech.

To begin, however, I should say something about the problems Obama faced. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I felt that it would be difficult for him to return to the mytheme or archetype that unified his acceptance speech four years ago—the American Dream. He also faced the difficulty of being the president during a time when the economy is doing poorly. The incumbent usually has an advantage, except when the economy is doing poorly.

Exordium. The exordium, Cicero’s term for what we call the introduction, is the place where the speaker establishes his ethos, that is, his good character. In this speech, the exordium lasts only a few minutes. Obama refers to his love for his wife and children, his friendship with Joe Biden, and then he accepts the nomination. The exordium can be short because Obama’s speech comes at the end of a convention during which a series of speeches established his character. Michele Obama was able to reclaim the American Dream as a theme in her speech, telling both her success story and her husband’s. Biden spoke of witnessing Obama making difficult decisions that have, in the end, benefitted most Americans. All Obama had to do what acknowledge their speeches to pull that ethos into his speech.

Narratio. The narratio provides a backstory to the arguments that follow. Obama’s narration begins with this: “But when all is said and done, when you pick up that ballot to vote, you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation.” Choice will be a central theme of the speech. In five paragraphs (in the speech transcript), Obama moves from his grandparents sacrifice for the country during World War II (his grandfather serving in Patton’s army and his grandmother working on a bomber assembly line) to why he first ran for president (he saw the “basic bargain,” a renaming of the American Dream, slipping away) to what the Republicans said the week before (not much, he says, because they didn’t present a plan). Notice there is a timeline here. Not unusual for the narration. However, as we will see, Obama resorts to timelines again and again in this speech. His overarching argument is that he has, in the last three and a half years, had significant accomplishments but he needs more time to right America. Repeatedly in this speech, Obama says here were problems he faced when he assumed office, he achieved significant accomplishments during his first term, he also laid groundwork for the future, and he needs a second term to continue this trend. He wants Americans to see their current situation as part of a larger historical story.

Partitio. The partition introduces the arguments that will follow. This section begins with “Now, I’ve cut taxes . . .”  In this paragraph, Obama says that he is not going to return to what he sees as failed Republican policies: “We are moving forward, America.” Then he says the path forward will not be easy or quick. Later in this section, he invokes FDR, another president who faced reelection during an economic downturn and a long recovery. The section begins: “I’m asking you to rally around a set of goals for your country, goals in manufacturing, energy, education, national security, and the deficit, real, achievable goals that will lead to new jobs, more opportunity, and rebuild this economy on a stronger foundation. That’s what we can do in the next four years, and that is why I am running for a second terms as President of the United States.” Kind of sounds like specifics. Specifics on the specifics soon follow. Maybe, the pundits were expecting specifics on the specifics of the specifics.

Confirmatio. Here is where Obama presents his core arguments for why he should be reelected. As I mentioned earlier, Obama’s arguments fall into a timeline that encourages us to acknowledge a broad historical perspective. The first argument relates to manufacturing. The problem: Manufacturing was on the decline. The auto industry was on the verge of bankruptcy. What he did: He signed agreements to sell more products made in America and he made the commitment to support the auto industry. Early success: A million and a half new jobs have been added to manufacturing in the last two and a half years. The way forward: A foundation has been laid for green products that will allow American to complete in the world market. The other topics covered in this section (education, energy, the economy, and foreign affairs) are also laid out on timelines.

Refutatio. This section begins with “So now we have a choice.” Obama invokes Clinton’s speech, his comments on the math of the deficit. During the DNC, Clinton’s speech was more refutatio than anything else, so invoking him brings the audience back to the specifics of Clinton’s speech. Of course, arguments against your opponent blend with arguments for your position. Obama says: “Independent experts say that my plan would cut our deficit by $4 trillion.”

Peroratio. Peroratio is Cicero’s term for the conclusion; it should, he says, focus on pathos, or emotional appeals. Usually, this section is comparatively short, but this section in Obama’s text (beginning with “This is the choice we now face”) is the longest of the speech. It is framed around American identity. Obama says, “You know what, that is not who we are.” Then, he moved into a section unified by “we.” Here is one example: “We believe that when a CEO pays his autoworkers enough to buy the cars that they build, the whole company does better.” Then, there is a “you” section that begins: “So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow Americans, you were the change.” As Michele Obama was able to reclaim the American Dream for the upcoming campaign, Obama here is able to reclaim hope by placing the source of his hope in the American people: “I am hopeful because of you.”

Finally, what is the mytheme or archetype that holds the speech together. The mytheme is established early in the speech, at the end of the encomium: “Now, the first time I addressed this convention, in 2004, I was a younger man, a Senate candidate from Illinois who spoke about hope, not blind optimism, not wishful thinking but hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, that dogged faith in the future which has pushed this nation forward even when the odds are great, even when the road is long.” In a way, Obama is saying I am a different person now. I am wiser, more experienced.

Carl Jung calls this archetype the Wise Old Man. Through the speech, you can find Obama referencing himself as older, an experienced man who can now accomplish more than he could in his first term. The danger of this mytheme is that it can be read as conceited. I think that is why Obama included a reference to Lincoln in the peroration: And while I am proud of what we’ve achieved, I am far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’”


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