The Rhetoric of Obama's Election-Night Speech


It was a pleasure to hear president-elect Barack Obama's eloquent speech on election night. Its success was due partly to its effective rhetorical devices.

Its language flowed in pleasing euphony. Obama also used visual imagery, as when he asked Americans to join in the work ahead "brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand" and when he recounted events from the life of 106-year-old Alice Nixon Cooper.

The speech included several examples of parallel structure, as in the three repetitions of "It's the answer" or the seven repetitions of Obama's campaign refrain, "Yes we can." Obama also used the slightly formal wording "Let us . . ." in a pair of parallel phrases, reinforcing the solemnity of the occasion and evoking the memory of John F. Kennedy's inaugural exhortation, "Let us go forth . . . " 

There were other allusions. Although Obama never mentioned Martin Luther King's name, those who lived through the civil rights era or know it recognized poignant evocations of King's hopes. Obama echoed King's statement that the "moral arc of history bends toward justice," observing that today's Americans can "bend it once more toward the hope of a better day." He echoed King's vow that "we as a people will get to the promised land," at once broadening the context to include all Americans and subtely reminding listeners that the day's events had brought King's goal closer. Obama also quoted the Gettysburg address of fellow Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln and restated his plea to a divided nation that "we are not enemies, but friends." 

Obama used synecdoche in the phrasing "we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers." Antithesis appeared in his declaration that "we will defeat" enemies  and "we will support" peace seekers.

And in language reminiscent of Roosevelt's "New Deal" and Kennedy's "New Frontier," Obama also used a felicitous phrase to describe his own presidency: "A new dawn of American leadership."

The speech sang, moving some in the audience to tears. Not a bad start for a president-elect.

                                      --The Word Aficionado