Table of Contents
2 Barack Obama’s biography
3 The "American Dream"
4 Barack Obama’s "Yes, we can" speech
4.1. America’s situation when the speech was given
4.2. Main topics of the speech
4.2.1. Change in politics
4.2.2. Unifying the American nation
4.2.3. Barack Obama’s political agenda
4.2.4. References to the "American Dream"
5 Evaluation of Barack Obama’s political agenda
5.1. Hillary Clinton’s statement "all rhetoric, no substance"
5.2. Achievement of Barack Obama’s political agenda
The 2008 presidential election in the United States of America was dominated for a long time by the primaries1 of the Democratic Party with a fierce competition between a white woman, Hillary Clinton, and the African American senator Barack Obama. The extraordinary situation that neither an African American male nor a Caucasian woman had ever been nominated for presidential candidate by the same major political party, caused a great stir, both nationally and internationally.2
The New Hampshire primary has traditionally been the first in a series of nationwide state primary elections. The primary process is used to select the presidential candidates for both Democrats and Republicans depending upon the percentage of state-wide votes that a candidate receives. As the first in a series of primary elections, the New Hampshire primary is viewed as a critical one. The winner obtains a large advantage in the course of the ongoing campaign, because it reflects the opinion of the voters about the candidates for the first time. That is why the New Hampshire primary has such a high level of media attention.3 On 8 January 2008 Hillary Clinton managed to beat the favored Barack Obama in the New Hampshire primary election. The same day Barack Obama gave his truly inspirational "Yes, we can" speech to his supporters.4
This speech is the main topic of my research paper. The two introductory chapters will give a short overview on Barack Obama’s life, and then the basics of the "American Dream" will be described.
In the main part, there are two central questions I want to analyse. Firstly, how Barack Obama used the concept of the "American Dream" in order to deliver the key messages in his "Yes, we can" speech. The second question involves a statement that Hillary Clinton made during the primary campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. As his opponent, she claimed that Barack Obama was "all rhetoric, no substance"5. I will explore if these accusations were correct by analysing how Barack Obama fulfilled the promises he made in his New Hampshire speech during his presidency in terms of the "American Dream".
There is extensive literature both on Barack Obama’s life and the "American Dream". For my analysis and understanding of his ideas on the "American Dream" I concentrate on Barack Obama’s own biography Dreams from My Father, his book Audacity of Hope describing his thoughts of reclaiming the "American Dream", and Jim Cullen’s often cited book The American Dream. The main sources for the analysis of the speech are Harald Frank’s book Rhetorische Analyse der “Yes we can” Rede von Barack Obama and Shel Leanne’s book Say it like Obama. For the concluding evaluation of Barack Obama’s political achievements various articles and statistical data are used.
2 Barack Obama’s biography
Barack Obama’s life and personality are characterized by a broadly diverse set of experiences that shaped his view on the "American Dream".
Barack Obama comes from a mixed family. His father, the Kenyan Barack Obama Sr., met his white U.S. born mother Ann Dunham at the University of Hawaii.6 In 1961, Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. Early in his childhood, after his parents divorced, Barack Obama lived with his mother and his Indonesian Muslim stepfather in Indonesia.7 Later, due to the fact that his mother wanted Barack Obama to attend an American school, he stayed with his maternal grandparents in the United States of America.8
Barack Obama had an excellent school and academic education. He studied political science receiving a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, New York. Afterwards he studied, and excelled, at Harvard University’s Law School where he was also named president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review.9
After his first studies, he worked as a community organizer10 in Chicago for three years. It was the time when he converted to Christianity and joined the Trinity United Church of Christ.11 After he received his law degree he worked as a lawyer and lectured constitutional law.12
In 1992, he married Michelle Robinson13 with whom he has two daughters. In 1995, he published his autobiography Dreams from My Father, which mainly discusses the self-discovery of his origins; in particular of his African ancestry. In 2006, his second book The Audacity of Hope 14 was published describing his ideas about how politics and civic life should change in the United States of America.15
Barack Obama started his political career serving in the Illinois State Senate from 1996 to 2004. He was elected to U.S. Senate in 2004, became president of the United States in 2009 and was re-elected in 2012.16 In 2009, Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize to honour his remarkable work to improve international diplomacy as well as the cooperation between people from around the globe.17
3 The "American Dream"
The "American Dream" as an idea and a goal has been present for a long time in the mind of the American people but the origin of the term "American Dream" only dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. The American historian James Truslow Adams popularized the term in his book THE EPIC OF AMERICA, published in 1931.18 Truslow described which characteristics and values were typical for Americans: "[…] in especial, of that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank which is the greatest contribution we have as yet made to the thought and welfare of the world."19
After Truslow’s book, the concept of the "American Dream" was further described by numerous authors. One of the most prominent of these was Jim Cullen. According to Cullen, in his book The American Dream 20 the dream of the good life in America started with the Pilgrims and Puritans in the early 17th century as a quest for religious freedom. Later freedom became a central demand of minorities such as African Americans.21
Cullen also defines the United States Declaration of Independence, adopted on 4 July 1776, as the charter for the "American Dream". The key concepts that guarantee the "American Dream" are written in its preamble:22
"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."23
However, at that time even the Declaration of Independence proclaimed only that all men are created equal, and more specifically solely white males. The result was that females, African Americans or even Native Americans were not considered to be equal.24
Next, Cullen discusses "upward mobility", which for many is the most relevant aspect of the "American Dream". It is typically understood to be an economic and/or social advancement.25
A further element defining the American identity is "The American’s Creed" written by William Page which passed as a resolution by the United States House of Representatives in 1918. It is a creed similar to a religious creed summing up the principles of the American political faith:26
"I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by people, for the people […] established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American Patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes."27
Central to the "American Dream" is the goal of equality. In the chapter "King of America The Dream of Equality" Cullen discusses the situation of African Americans and women.28 Cullen states that the "American Dream is in many ways a story of omissions"29 as inequalities of opportunities have been central for American women30 and that:
"The struggle for black equality is one of the great dramas of our national history".31 One of the most famous American civil rights activists, Martin Luther King Jr., addressed the fight for racial and social equality in his celebrated "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963:32
"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ’We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’."33
Finally, one can summarize that today the "American Dream" means different things to different groups of people, but at its core, it is the idea that every person regardless of their gender, race, creed, colour, origin or sexual orientation should have an equal opportunity to achieve their personal highest aspirations and goals.
Taking into account the principles described above, Barack Obama’s life is a prime example for the realization of the "American Dream". Despite coming from a minority, he achieved upward mobility in particular because of his excellent education and his passion to believe in change.
4 Barack Obama’s "Yes, we can" speech
This chapter will analyse how Barack Obama used the concept of the "American Dream" in order to deliver the key messages in his "Yes, we can" speech.
4.1 America’s situation when the speech was given
The historical situation in which Barack Obama delivered his speech can be divided into two aspects. On the one hand, the overall situation in the United States of America at the time of the 2008 presidential election and, on the other hand, the specific situation of the primaries for the nomination of a presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. Both aspects strongly influenced his speech.34
The overall situation for the 2008 presidential election showed a turbulent picture. The World Trade Center terror attack of 11 September 2001 was still on the mind of the people and there was public anxiety over terrorism and public security. American troops were still stationed in Iraq – an engagement that the majority of the Americans meanwhile opposed. Many Americans distrusted the government to solve problems, for instance rising housing prices, health care disparity, weak economic conditions, and a rapidly increasing unemployment rate.35
Voters were looking for candidates they trusted in order to make America a safe place. Furthermore, there was an increased pessimism that the national economy would continue to worsen and that the middle and working class participated less in the nation’s prosperity compared to the upper class. In short, many voters were questioning whether the "American Dream" was still attainable and they were looking for a candidate that would revitalize their optimism.36
Regarding the primaries, the situation changed significantly in the days before Barack Obama’s "Yes, we can" speech. The clear favourite Hillary Clinton was defeated by Barack Obama in the first election in Iowa. Thus, Barack Obama was favoured for the primary in New Hampshire, but narrowly lost it to Hillary Clinton.37
This defeat meant for Barack Obama that he needed to provide voters with a compelling reason to vote for him as the person who could start the change being needed to reinvigorate the "American Dream".38
4.2 Main topics of the speech
The overarching themes of the speech were "Hope" and "Change". I will analyse more specifically Barack Obama’s claim for change in politics, unifying the American nation, his political agenda,39 as well as his references to the "American Dream". Where possible, I will also briefly discuss the key rhetorical devices used in the speech.40
4.2.1 Change in politics
As noted above, the focus of Barack Obama’s campaign was "Hope" and "Change We Can Believe In"41 and this included changing politics in order to make a better life – the "American Dream" – more achievable. For Barack Obama, this change in politics was already underway in the consciousness of the American people. Directly after the introduction of his speech, he gave the following examples42 in which he addressed how different social groups took it upon themselves to bring change to the United States:
- "There is something happening when men and women in Des Moines and Davenport, in Lebanon and Concord, come out in the snows of January to wait in lines that stretch block after block because they believe in what this country can be."43
- "There’s something happening when Americans who are young in age and in spirit, who’ve never participated in politics before, turn out in numbers we have never seen because they know in their hearts that this time must be different."44
- "There’s something happening when people vote not just for party that they belong to, but the hopes that they hold in common."45
Barack Obama concluded his appeal for change in politics by emphasizing:46
"That’s what’s happening in America right now; change is what’s happening in America".47 Rhetorically, Barack Obama used a variety of repetition techniques in order to give more power to his statements and to make them more persuasive to the audience. One of them is the anaphora,48 "There is something happening […]", which he repeated at the start of every example to reinforce his demand for "Change".49
1 Candidates for U.S. President seek their party's nomination in primary elections. See Britannica Encyclopedia, Primary election, p. 1.
2 See Frank, H. (2008) Rhetorische Analyse der "Yes we can" Rede von Barack Obama. Norderstedt: Grin Verlag, p. 1.
3 See Murse, T. (2018) Why the New Hampshire Primary is so Important, p. 1ff.
4 See Frank, H. (2008) p. 4.
5 Hayes, S. F. (2008) Obama and the Power of Words, p. 2.
6 See Obama, B. (2004) Dreams from My Father, p. 9f.
7 See Wallenfeldt, J., & Mendell, D. (2019) Barack Obama, p.4.
8 See Obama, B. (2004) p. 54f.
9 See Wallenfeldt, J., & Mendell, D. (2019) p. 4f.
10 Someone who identifies community concerns and coordinates efforts of local residents to improve the interests of the community. See Black, C (2019) The Birthplace of Community Organizing, p. 2f.
11 See Obama, B. (2008) The Audacity of Hope, p. 206ff.
12 See Wallenfeldt, J., & Mendell, D. (2019) p. 4ff.
13 See Obama, B. (2004) p. 440f.
14 See Frank, H. (2008) p. 2.
15 See Obama, B. (2008) p. 9ff.
16 See Wallenfeldt, J., & Mendell, D. (2019) p. 1ff.
17 See Rodrigues, J. (2017) The Obama years: timeline of a presidency, p. 2ff.
18 See Wilson, K. D. (2013) The American Dream: In the age of diminished expectations, p. 1.
19 Truslow, A. J. (1931) THE EPIC OF AMERICA, preface viii.
20 Full title: The American Dream. A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation published in 2003.
21 See Cullen, J. (2004) The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation, p. 15ff.
22 See Cullen, J. (2004) p. 35ff.
23 National Archives (Ed.). Declaration of Independence.
24 See Cullen, J. (2004) p. 51.
25 See Cullen, J. (2004) p. 59f.
26 See Courtright Patton, M. (2010) The American’s Creed, p. 1ff.
27 Page, W. (1917) The American’s Creed, p.1.
28 See Cullen, J. (2004) p. 103ff.
29 Cullen, J (2004) p. 119.
30 See Cullen, J. (2004) p. 119.
31 Cullen, J. (2004) p. 110.
32 See Cullen, J. (2004) p. 125f.
33 King Jr., Martin L. “American Rhetoric.“ 28 August 1963, p. 4.
34 See Frank, H. (2008) p. 3f.
35 See Gotoff, D. (2007) The Changing U.S. Voter, p. 17f.
36 See Gotoff, D. (2007) p. 17ff.
37 See Frank, H. (2008) p. 4.
38 See Frank, H. (2008) p. 4f.
39 See Frank, H. (2008) p. 7ff.
40 For the rhetorical analysis of the speech only the written transcript will be used and not the TV recording.
41 See Blake, A. Obama: The man of many slogans, p. 1.
42 See Frank, H. (2008) p. 8.
43 Transcript Speech, Iines 16ff.
44 Transcript Speech, Iines 20ff.
45 Transcript Speech, Iines 24f.
46 See Frank, H. (2008) p. 8.
47 Transcript Speech, Iines 29f.
48 In rhetoric, anaphora is the repetition of the same word or a phrase at the beginning of sentences. See Zimmer, J. (2011) “Rhetorical Devices: Anaphora.“ Manner of Speaking, p. 1.
49 See Frank, H. (2008) p. 8.