On November 4th, 2008, President-elect Barack Obama made his victory speech to over 200,000 people in attendance at Grant Park and millions of other viewers watching through television and the Internet. The year 2008 was a pivotal time for America because the long eight-year presidency of George W Bush was coming to an end and it was time for a new face. However, America was plagued with many problems. Among other things there were wars going in other countries, the economy was in shambles, and global warming was a threat. America was not well and it needed help. Barack Obama’s campaign and subsequent election was the answer to the exigencies in the country. In his almost eighteen-minute speech Obama hooks the viewers in with a pathetic investment to his campaign, the use of historical figures to help establish the importance of the moment and the use of “Yes We Can” as a form of ethos to define the nation.
The president’s pathetic appeal begins the moment the speech starts. There is electricity in the crowd and the excited tension is thick in the air. Everyone is chattering and the audience is just waiting for something to hook them in. The speech offers viewers and listeners an accepting hand to join in with the Obama campaign. The American people are presented as having a pathetic appeal in the campaign since they elected him president. This is evident in Obama’s reference to America as a place. Obama states “we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America”(Obama). As these words left his lips the audience’s applause began to grow and it grew with each statement until the applause grew so loud that Obama had to pause for it to die down. He tries to dispel the notion of America as multiple entities consisting of colors, races, or creeds. He wants to represent a united America. This is a an attempt to unify the country after a particularly divisive time, seeing as at the time the country was going through the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. Obama gives the victory to the people. How many people can say they got to be a part of something bigger than themselves? He states, “I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to – it belongs to you” (Obama). This statement is a thank you to all the common people who donated five dollars here or there to the campaign. Obama describes his campaign as having started in the homes of common people, not in the halls of Washington. This is an attempt to appear in touch and in tune with the people who helped elect him. Obama’s pathetic appeal can be seen as successful due to the emotional response he received from his physical audience. The tear lined faces of his audience and the abundance of the national colors red, white, and blue said more than words could.
In between his pathetic appeal Obama layers in several references to historical figures both big and small to help play on the importance of the moment. For the first time ever, a black man was elected president of the United States. It was a huge moment for a country that has a past of discrimination and slavery. Obama’s use of quotes from Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and the characterization of Ann Nixon Cooper made allusions to this hate filled past and serves to establish his logos. The references to Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln played on the huge racial moment. The direct quotes from Abraham Lincoln helped define a similar period of divisiveness in America. The quote also helps legitimize his claim to the presidency by quoting another president. Obama’s allusions to Martin Luther Kings speech in Selma via the use of “Arc of History,” a common phrase Martin Luther King used, was instrumental in again reaffirming the idea that they were all witnesses to something historical. His use of Ann Nixon Cooper throughout the speech as a national figure and her characterization as a symbol for the American climate of the last one hundred years was pivotal in summing up his main point: his election to President was a long time coming. Throughout her long life, Ann Nixon Cooper has bared witness to radical changes in America. From a period of racial discrimination to having a black man elected as president, Ann Nixon Cooper has seen America through its highs and lows. After seeing America through its darkest, Obama, and his campaign was the light at the end of the tunnel for not just Ann Nixon Cooper, but all of America. His main reason to characterize these figures historical and current was to show that they helped pave the way for him. Obama wanted to portray himself as the fulfillment of centuries long struggle for freedom, and the use of civil rights hallmark figures such as Lincoln and Martin Luther King helps give some legitimacy to his claim.
Finally the speech was effective in drawing people together with the simple use of three words: “Yes We Can”. Those three words defined the Obama campaign and was an effective appeal. The rhetoric in the slogan isn’t lost. The words are “Yes We Can,” not “Yes I Can”. This is important because the slogan “Yes We Can” is one of unification and it makes the common man a part of the campaign. Obama’s election was not won by himself; it was possible through the people who helped support him, hence the “we.” While this might seem like another pathetic appeal, it is actually an appeal to ethos. Obama uses ethos in the form of “Yes We Can” to define the nation. Using Ann Nixon Cooper and the changing domestic and international climate in her lifetime to reference world events he ends each small statement with “Yes We Can” to signify that even through all the change in the last one hundred years, America has still stood strong on the principle it was founded on. He uses his slogan to not just define the country’s character but to defend it from those who think that America has fallen.
The context of this speech is important to truly understand the significance of it. The recession had the country in a chokehold and people were suffering. There was a general gloom in the air and Obama’s campaign was a breath of fresh air in the national atmosphere. His campaign was important because it represented the hope of a fresh start. The fresh start of a country moving forward, and putting it’s racist past behind it. The election of a black man to the highest government position in the land is a monumental occasion, one that our children will be learning about in their textbooks. The location of the speech itself alludes to our racist past. Grant Park was the location of riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention held right after the assassination of Martin Luther King. In a country where race is still something that is a sensitive subject, this was a huge step forward for a country that usually takes ten steps back for every step of racial progress.
In his eighteen-minute speech Obama was able to develop an emotional connection for the audience to his campaign, he defined the moment in regards to historical context and used a common slogan in “Yes We Can” to define the character of the nation. This speech was emotional for everyone involved because it represented the culmination of years and years of hope for a better tomorrow. The tears and cheers tell the story of the people. Obamas emotion however, isn’t apparent in his clothes, gestures, or signs. It is in his voice. He speaks slowly and his voice is thick with the emotion and knowledge of the importance of his words and how they will affect the people he is speaking to. Through his masterful presentation of his speech and drawing on the pathos of his viewers and listeners, he is able to gain support from his audience and start his presidency off on a good note, a note of hope.
Obama, Barack. “Senator Barack Obama’s Victory Speech.” Speech. Barack Obama Election Victory Speech 2008. Grant Park, Chicago. 4 Nov. 2008. Abcnews.go.com. 4 Nov. 2008. Web. 3 Oct. 2012. <http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/Vote2008/story?id=6181477&page=1>.