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Barack Obama and the American Dream as Depicted in Some of His Famous Speeches

Facharbeit (Schule) 2012 29 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Kultur und Landeskunde


Index of contents

1. Introduction

2. The American Dream
2.1 Definition
2.2 History of concepts
2.2.1 The belief in social progress
2.2.3 The belief in values and rights of the founding documents and famous reflections on it
2.2.4 The belief in the “melting pot”or similar images
2.2.5 The belief in ever new frontiers
2.2.6 The belief in American Exceptionalism
2.3 The concept of the American Dream since September 11th 2001

3. Biography of Barack Hussein Obama
3.1 Obama´s curriculum vitae
3.2 Obama´s biography and the American Dream

4. The American Dream in famous speeches of Obama
4.1 Obama´s belief in social progress
4.2 Obama´s belief in individual success
4.3 Obama´s belief in values and rights of the founding documents and famous reflections on it
4.4 Obama´s belief in the ideas of multicultural mixture
4.5 Obama´s belief in ever new frontiers
4.6 Obama´s belief in American Exceptionalism

5. Results

6. Conclusion

7. Index of Literature

1. Introduction

In 2009 Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States. He fascinated millions of people all over the world and even in Germany people recited his motto “Yes we can”. He inspired a nation. Obama and his speeches were so electrifying that a lot of people spoke of a national obsession with Senator Barack Obama.

I wondered how he managed to fill the people with enthusiasm. He was always speaking about the American Dream. So I asked myself: “What is this American Dream; which of its values and ideas are so fascinating that they inspired the nation, and how are they influenced by Obama using them in his speeches? Does Obama just use them for tactical reasons because they are so popular?”

In order to answer these questions it is at first necessary to define the term “American Dream” and to understand the history and meaning of its ideas and values. Then I want to look at Obama's biography, if there are any hints that show his interest in the American Dream and what influence does it have on his interpretation of the American Dream.

For the analysis of his interpretation of the American Dream I have chosen a “selection of Obama´s most striking speeches up to April 2009”[1]. These speeches show “how he managed…to inspire many citizens”.[2] Because I want to illustrate all of the six fundamental concepts of the “American Dream” I scanned the whole collection for striking phrases exemplifying his use of these ideas. They will show his specific interpretation of the American Dream.

2. The American Dream

2.1 Definition

“American Dream" has become a widespread term to describe a set of American values and beliefs. Jim Cullen describes it as an idea that “shaped American identity from the Pilgrims to the present”.[3] It is the central idea of the American history, even though its concept is shifting.[4]

The term "American Dream" was first used in the book “Drift and Mastery” the journalist Walter Lippmann published in 1914.[5] He used it to motivate people to find a new dream for the 20th century. He was frustrated at the inaction of the American government and politicians. The historian James Truslow Adams popularized the term in 1931. In his book “The Epic of America” he describes how America came into being and what kind of values are typical for most Americans. And he specifies it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement”[6]. But Adams was dreaming of something more than individual wealth. He was interested in a more spiritual and less materialistic and a more communal and less individualistic version of the dream: “At its core, the American Dream represents the state of mind – that is, an enduring optimism given to a people who might be tempted to succumb to the travails of adversity, but who, instead, repeatedly rise from the ashes to continue to build a great nation.”[7]

Knowing what the “American Dream” is at its core, we have to think about the values and ideas that are associated with it. Even if the number of ideas that are referred to the American Dream is changing there is a broad consensus that it exists of the following six fundamental concepts.[8]

2.2 History of concepts

2.2.1 The belief in social progress

According to the course of the sun from east to west the Middle Ages believed in a development of mankind that has started in the east and would fulfill in the west. The Puritans who fled from Europe to America wanted to build up “a new heaven upon earth”.[9] Especially after 1630 Puritans left for New England.[10] They believed “that the world was a corrupt place, but one that could be reformed”.[11] They believed due to the Bible that God has sent them to America where they should start the process of realizing the new kingdom of God.[12]

The governor of New England, John Winthrop puts it in his sermon “Christian Charity” in this way: he, Winthrop, is Moses, the leader of the chosen people Israel who is guiding New England the steep way through the desert to the mountain top, to the Promised Land, where they can build the “Citty upon a hill”, a metaphor taken from Matthew 5:14, where Jesus says at the same time that the Christians are “the light of the world”.[13]. They wanted to form a more perfect community than the nation they had left in old Europe. The way up of the chosen People is a “steady progress toward perfection”.[14] The main reason that motivated them to cross the Atlantic Ocean was that they didn't want their children to be corrupted; therefore the idea that their children might have a better life” as themselves has been an essential element of the American Dream.[15]

2.2.2 The belief in individual success

The hope of the Puritans was to be saved for eternal life. If someone is successful that is a sign for being chosen by God; therefore the Puritans always worked hard, carried themselves with discipline, industriousness and asceticism.[16] They had a “concept of individual´s self –responsibility”[17] but at the same time they wanted to establish with their community a “model of Christian charity”[18]. So in the beginning of the settlement, it was more a spiritual than a materialistic understanding of individual success.[19]

This understanding of success changed during the next generations. To them success meant “worldly success”[20]. Benjamin Franklin (1709-1790) for example was interested in material success.[21] Sayings of his “Poor Richard Almanac” like “anyone can pull himself up by his own bootstrings”[22] show, that this generation was convinced, that no one needs helpful connections or the community for his individual success.

Now the people were no longer as the early Puritans interested to form a spiritual community, the paradise on earth. Now they wanted the materialistic “land of unlimited opportunities”.[23] Everybody can rise “from rags to riches”, a message that was popularized in the 19th century by Horatio Alger, Jr.[24] He helped to give the American Dream a “materialistic twist”.[25]

2.2.3 The belief in the values and rights of the founding documents and famous reflections on it

The Congress of the 13 American colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Famous is its preamble: “We hold these truths to be self – evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[26] These values and rights became an outstanding part of the American Dream.

The Constitution of the United States was adopted in 1787. Often quoted is the beginning of its preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, …”.[27] The idea of the early Puritans that the world and every community have to be reformed and a steady progress toward perfection is necessary has now become an element of the Constitution. Its first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, guarantee freedoms of religion, press, speech and assembly etc..[28]

President Lincoln underlines in his famous Gettysburg Address the principles of human equality and the survival of America's democracy: “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth”[29]. In 1963 Martin Luther King quoted the famous creed of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence: “…We hold these truths to be self – evident, that all men are created equal,…”[30] and the rights that are promised in it “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”[31] and spoke of his hope, his dream, that one day the values of equality, freedom and justice will prevail in America.[32]

2.2.4 The belief in the “melting pot” or similar images

These promises of the freedom documents were the basis for the dreams of the people who were suffering under the rules of their governments. Especially since 1820 people of all nations, religions, races, languages dreaming the American Dream immigrated to the United States. America became a multicultural society, a “melting pot”.

This expression became popular in 1908 by Israel Zangwill`s play “The Melting Pot”, even if its idea was already formulated in 1782.[33] But because the “melting” did not really happen a lot of other images were suggested expressing the peaceful togetherness without mixing: “salad bowl, “patchwork quilt”, “E pluribus Unum”[34] (“Out of many, one”). These images illustrate the idea of the American Dream that the union is more than the sum of its parts.

2.2.5 The belief in ever new frontiers

The advance of American settlement westward had a lot of influence on the American Dream. The pioneers made experiences at the frontier between civilization of settlement and the savagery of wilderness that formed the typical American character. That is the very popular thesis of the historian Frederick Jackson Turner he first published in 1893[35].

The pioneers advancing westward had to adapt to environmental challenges again and again. This was a long process by which citizens with strength, individuality, equal opportunities, economic success were formed. Moving forward every generation became more individualistic, more democratic, more optimistic, more self-confident, more distrustful of authority, more American. Crossing the ocean to look for the Promised Land in America and then going westward to continue the pursuit transformed the Americans into a “nation of wanderers”.[36] Typical for them is the belief in “ever new beginnings”, “an innovative spirit”[37] and the “scorn of older society”[38]

This process was seen as a motor for change and source of America's power. So when the US Census of 1890 stated that this American frontier was closed, many believed America needed new challenges. “America extended its Manifest Destiny to areas beyond the West”[39]. For President Roosevelt (President: 1901-1909) it was necessary that America must expand overseas.[40] For Kennedy the new challenge was the open frontier of space;[41] for others it was the open frontier of science, society and internet.[42] So the belief in ever new frontiers is another part of the American dream. This and the idea of a steady progress toward perfection with a better life for the children[43] shaped in my opinion the belief in “the cult of newness”, in “ever new beginnings” and “the glorification of youth”.[44]

2.2.5 The belief in American Exceptionalism

The Puritans, as we have already stated, paved the way for the concept of Manifest Destiny with their idea that they were – in following God's call- the “Citty upon the Hill”, the “light of the world” and God´s chosen people. Because this idea does not conform to a pattern or norm this belief is also called American Exceptionalism.

This idea of being a role model survived and is combined with the idea of America's leadership: The first presidents of the young democracy can say that the United States are “acting for mankind”[45] (Jefferson) or are “the guardians of freedom to preserve it for the benefit of the human race”[46] (Jackson).

President Lincoln[47] links his intention to give freedom to the slaves to the idea that America is the “Citty upon the Hill”. And if America doesn't give freedom to the slaves, the world will lose “the last best hope on Earth”. But if America saves to be “the last best hope on Earth”, “the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.”

The term “Manifest Destiny” first used in 1845 to claim the North American continent for the United States[48] became, after the continent was conquered, a synonym for the policy of expansion and intervention all over the world.[49] In 1917 President Wilson (1913 -1921) gave the idea of Manifest Destiny a new interpretation: America should make “the world safe for democracy” and “encourage the self – determination of all people”, an interpretation that is in accordance with President Obama's understanding of America´s leadership.[50]


[1] Obama 2009,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cullen, back cover

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cf. Hanson / White, p. 2f

[6] Hanson / White, p. 3

[7] Hanson / White, p. 3

[8] Cf. Freese, 2011, p.71

[9] Freese, 1994, p. 35

[10] Cf. Wikipedia. Puritan

[11] Cullen, 15

[12] Cf. Prexi, p. 6f.

[13] Cf. Müller, p. 39-41; in the Bible “to be the light of the world” means to be role models. This idea paved the way for the concept of Manifest Destiny (cf. Prexi, p. 7).

[14] Müller, p.42

[15] Cf. Cullen, p. 16

[16] Cf. Müller, p. 47f.

[17] Freese, ³1994, p.111

[18] Prexi, p. 6

[19] Müller, p.49f.

[20] Müller, p.54

[21] ibid.

[22] Freese, ³1994, p.110

[23] Müller, p. 57

[24] Cf. Freese, ³1994, p.110f

[25] Freese, ³1994, p.113

[26] Bauer, p. 7

[27] Wikipedia, United States Constitution

[28] Cf. Bauer, p. 8f.

[29] Bauer, p.14

[30] Freese, 2011, p. 23, l. 122-124;

[31] Freese, 2011, p.22, l.25f;

[32] Cf. ibid., p. 22f

[33] Cf. Freese, ³1994, p.151-153

[34] Cf. Wikipedia “”E pluribus unum”: Until 1956, when “In God We Trust” became the official motto, it was considered to be the motto of the nation. Originally it suggested that out of many colonies or states a single nation emerged. Now it is illustrating that out of many people, races etc. a single nation emerged.

[35] Cf. Wikipedia, Frontier Thesis

[36] Billington, p. 2

[37] Cf. Prexi, p. 12

[38] Bauer, p. 21

[39] Müller, p. 70

[40] Cf. Wikipedia, Frontier Thesis

[41] Cf. Ibid.

[42] Cf. Cullen, p. 143

[43] See above: 2.2.1

[44] For Freese, 2011, p.71, these ideas are “additional concepts” of the “American Dream”.

[45] Quoted in Müller, p. 67

[46] Ibid., p.67f.

[47] Cf. Lincoln, Annual Address to the U.S. Congress, 1 December 1862

[48] Cf. Müller, p. 68

[49] Cf. Prexi, p. 13

[50] Cf. Obama, 2006, p. 334


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Titel: Barack Obama and the American Dream as Depicted in Some of His Famous Speeches