Obama’s Powerful Use of Persuasive Speech for Positive Change
This post is not about who I support in the next presidential election, or even in the next primary. But I’ve been asked repeatedly by my students to comment on the rhetorical skill of Senator Barack Obama. His latest speech on racial healing, triggered by a backlash to comments from his pastor, hit all the right notes, at least in my book. Here is an article on Obama’s speech at Boston.com’s Political Intelligence section that I’d like to base my comments on.
Common Ground Outlined
He sought to lay out the common ground on which Americans of all backgrounds can meet, while offering an accounting for his minister’s angry rhetoric. Instead of defending it or excusing it, he defines the motivations behind it, and then points out what is its failing – that the minister fails to acknowledge the capacity for positive social change that is responsible for the progress made in the U.S. over the last many decades.
I’d like to examine his use of persuasive speech, and point out some of the best examples of it.
Let’s begin with two part contrast, which you find in this statement by Obama: “We have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism,” he said. “Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.”
Compare this with the same statement, had he left off the first half. “At this moment, in this election, we can come together.” It’s not enough. But combined with the fearful first half, the second half of the statement pops, and is delivered through the rhetorical answer to the unstated question, “Not this time.”
In this next quote, Obama uses rhetorical questions to throw the strongest accusation back on his critics with great effect, when he says, “Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely — just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.”
Rule of Threes
Then he uses the Rule of Threes to account for his unwillingness to disown the reverend. “He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children,” Obama said.
He adds in a little Pygmalion power, to shape us in the image of his highest hopes.
“This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. “
He highlights the inconsistency of the press, and of the remarks directed at his race, with this: “At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either ‘too black’ or ‘not black enough.”
Again, using two part contrast, he says, “This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.”
Then he calls on his most ardent supporters, speaking to any suspicions raised in their minds, and to their motivation in supporting him, he asks for what he wants from them, their continuing to believe in his candidacy. “And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation — the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.”
Persuasive Speech for Positive Change
All in all, Obama uses persuasive speech to take a potentially damaging set of revelations, and turn it to his advantage. Such talk actually has the potential to play an important role in bringing about positive change in this fundamental area of our civic discourse.