Barack Obama and the rhetoric of a black president

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2013-12

Authors

Young-Johnson, Connie

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Abstract

This dissertation analyzes the discourse of Obama’s speeches to argue my thesis that Obama won election by virtue of his rhetorical speechmaking but more specifically, his ability to manage race in those speeches. I define and refer to Obama’s rhetorical handling of race in his speechmaking throughout the campaign as the rhetoric of race management. By rhetorical race management, I mean the strategic use of race (or obfuscation of race) in one’s discourse to manage or affect the audience’s beliefs or opinions of the listener. From a communication-based standpoint, understanding how race operated in this election requires us to examine the history of racism in the United States as well as critical scholarly work on the subject. Understanding how Obama was able to manage race in his rhetoric is necessary because it forces us to perhaps reexamine and scrutinize the 2008 Presidential election more carefully for several reasons. As rhetorical scholars, if we are in the business of understanding how our icons and politicians can potentially manipulate and use our rhetorical signs and symbols against us—or in spite of us--it is in our best interest to understand why the process occurred and why we allowed it to happen.
I suggest that Obama’s deliberate attempt to weave ideological constructs like patriotism and the American Dream into his campaign strategy obfuscated his representation as the marginalized “other” and created a new political identity that has little to do with marginalization. By examining the theories of scholars like Kenneth Burke, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Walter Fisher, and Dana Cloud, I outline how race and racism historically operated in our political elections, from both a sociopolitical, or quantitative perspective, as well as a critical perspective. By using a multimethod analysis, we are better positioned to understand how Barack Obama successfully played the race card in the Presidential Election of 2008. More importantly, I argue in my conclusion why his use of rhetorical race management, was absolutely necessary if he were to become the first African-American president in a historically racist country.

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