In praise of Obama’s rhetoric

Barack Obama On the eve of President-elect Barack Obama’s eagerly anticipated Inaugural speech, newspaper headlines are reporting on past Inaugural speeches and millions of Americans plan to engage in the unnatural act of listening to a speech from beginning to end.

Obama, more than any living US President, consciously embraces oratory and the art of rhetoric. A superb assessment of Obama’s speech-making skills appeared in the Weekend Financial Times. Author Sam Leith shows how Obama deploys the terms and tools of formal rhetoric — first described by Aristotle four centuries before the birth of Christ. “They still work the same way on the human ear and the human heart as they did in Aristotle’s day.” His article covers a lot of ground. The main points I took from it are:

Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle

The rhetorical triangle sets out the ground rules for the art of persuasion. It describes how a speaker uses ‘ethos’ to establish their bona fides, ‘logos’ to make the argument logically and ‘pathos’ to manipulate emotion.

Rhetorical triangle


The ‘rule of three’ applied in a sentence with three clearly defined parts (cola) of equal length, usually independent clauses and of increasing power. Caesar’s “I came; I saw; I conquered.” Lincoln’s second inaugural with its line “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right … “. Obama at the Berlin Victory Column in front of 100,000 European’s last July: “As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice-caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya.” As Leith notes, this is rhetorical power in pure form:

A double (“Boston” and “Beijing”), leading to a tricolon whose third term is itself doubled up, the whole mixture thick with alliteration. This is very far from informal or direct or off-the-cuff speech. It is marvelously and intentionally musical.


The balanced double words used in “Boston and Beijing” or by speakers who say “young and old” or “black and white”.


The repetition of a phrase at the beginning of successive lines. Consider Churchill:

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.

Now Obama at the Iowa caucus victory speech on January 3rd:

“I’ll be a president who finally makes healthcare affordable … I’ll be a president who ends the tax breaks … I’ll be a president who harnesses the ingenuity … I’ll be a president who ends this war in Iraq … ” Then: “This was the moment when … this was the moment when … this was the moment when … ” And, as his speech built to its climax, “Hope is what I saw … Hope is what I heard … Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire.”

Leith’s article includes an inventory of the debt Obama owes to the rhetorical power of his absent father; to the framers of the Declaration of Independence; to his schooling at Columbia and Harvard; to past President’s; to the Civil Rights movement and the Bible:

Obama sets out to position himself, and his rhetoric positions him, as the inheritor of the oratorical and political traditions of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Jesus Christ.

Leith concludes by remarking the scorn republican’s poured on Obama as “a person of words” and “an elitist who works with words” – while championing the inarticulate leaders they admire (Bush, Palin and the rest). Let’s not forget, as I blogged in February, Hilary Clinton also criticized him as someone who just “gives speeches”.

It’ll be interesting to see the effect a US President with such a command of rhetoric will have on the general level of discourse in the political and commercial arenas. For too long in this country our politician’s and CEO’s have avoided eloquence as something unworthy, untrustworthy, vaguely “European”. They were proud of being plain spoken. Of being a man or woman of the people. That refusal to heed Aristotle’s simple techniques might have worked until now.

The bar has been raised.

3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Excellent post. Thanks, Ian.

For information on how the plain-folk talk of Palin scores in its own right, visit Angela DeFinis article at

Three years in to Obama’s Presidency the debate on the effectiveness of his rhetoric was discussed in a New York Times Op-Ed by Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen.

Nice to read that Satish Lakde, associate professor at the Walchand Institute of Technology (WIT) in India has ccompleted his doctoral thesis on Barack Obama’s 31 discourses and plans to send a copy of his five-year-long research to the White House this month.

Leave a comment
Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>