Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States who was still a presidential candidate at the time, faced a major challenge as he delivered his “A More Perfect Union” at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Just a week earlier, the national media had picked up on a series of comments that Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright Jr. , had made during sermons that were racially charged and targeted many different racial groups. Obama’s speech that day, titled “A More Perfect Union”, had to address that. Since ethos is one of the three main modes of persuasion as listed by Aristotle, we can ask “What ethos strategies does Obama use in his speech ‘A More Perfect Union’ to protect his reputation and discuss other topics meaningfully? ” Similarly, we can ask the more general question “What ethos strategies can be used to help protect a reputation? ” These questions matter for us today as there are always situations, especially political ones, where we need to defend our own credibility in a competent manner.
In his speech, Obama not only responds to his former pastor’s comments but also addresses the larger topic of race in the United States and argues that America can only continue to grow as a nation if all races and socioeconomic classes join forces and work together on problems. His major methods of development are narration and logical analysis. He presents a history of events and lists some problems before presenting logical solutions to each one. He supports this claim with three reasons: while Reverend Wright’s comments are deplorable, they consist of an amalgam of the worst statements he has ever made and do not reflect Reverend Wright as a person; that these types of situations reflect on America as a whole, with individuals all contributing different backgrounds; and that America needs to set aside history, and overcome and push forward in unity. He supports these reasons with some anecdotal evidence, but not much else, as is typical in speeches.
Obama’s purpose is twofold: he wants to make it clear that he doesn’t support his pastor’s racial comments, but he also wants to convince the audience to unite together in order to create a better America in the future. His implied audience are American voters, including those present physically at the speech and those at home. His rhetoric, however, excludes audience members who are against racial unification, specifically groups of Americans that have views that still involve some form of segregation—for example, white supremacists. Moreover, Obama was the democratic candidate, so his audience was likely biased towards more liberal on the political spectrum. He adopts an objective but still hopeful tone, a tone which is appropriate for the implied audience. His audience and the situation pose the following barriers and constraints: First, they are a very heterogeneous population, which means that trying to pander to a specific type of person might distance Obama from other groups. Second, the audience is wary of politicians as they are standardly depicted as two-faced, saying one thing while doing something else. Third, some in the audience were inherently biased against Obama as he was not the typical candidate since he was African-American.
In order to overcome these barriers, Obama had to establish himself as someone worth listening to, which is just the problem of establishing ethos. Classically, to establish ethos, you can display sagacity (knowledge of the issue, wisdom, or expertise), moral character, or good will toward the audience (Strang 1). By using these techniques, Obama manages to establish that he is someone with a strong spiritual and intellectual foundation. Three major aspects of Obama’s ethos stand out in this speech: sagacity of wisdom as shown by his mixed heritage, sagacity of knowledge, and good moral character and good will towards the audience as expressed through his religious background and morals.
Near the start of his speech, Obama states “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas[,] … was raised with the help of a white grandfather who … serve[d] in … World War II and a white grandmother who worked … while he was overseas” (Obama P8). By saying this, he establishes that he is deeply connected to many parts of the country, like Kansas, and that he can connect with both the African-American population and the white population as his father was Kenyan and his mother was white. He also states that “I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners—an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters” (Obama P8), further connecting him to the African-American population. This makes it clear that he not only connects with the African-American population of the present, but also with the African-American population of the past and the struggles, including slavery, that they went through. In this short snippet of his speech, he wraps up with “I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents” (Obama P8), which further cements his ability to view racial issues in the United States from a variety of perspectives by demonstrating sagacity of wisdom.
Obama also establishes that he is knowledgeable by saying that “I've gone to some of the best schools in America…” (Obama P8), namely Harvard, which demonstrates that he has a very strong educational background. This is also supported by his recall of seminal court cases like Brown v. Board of Education (Obama P29), and statements about the racial inequalities that are due to the “legacy of slavery and Jim Crow” (Obama, P29). Moreover, he even discusses conflicts in the Middle East and the root causes of them (Obama, P15). These statements show that Barack Obama not only understands present-day conflicts, but also knows the history well.
As a final method of building credibility, Obama establishes his good moral character and shows good will toward the audience. He states that “for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible” (Obama P8), which makes it clear that he still thinks America is the greatest country, even with all the hardships he has overcome. The fact that he starts the speech with a reference to the constitution and ends it similarly also indicate that he tries to align himself with the country. On the more religious side of things, Obama states that “more than twenty years ago [he was] introduce[d] …to Christian faith” (Obama P18). Thus, Obama has aligned himself with both God and country, so Obama seems untouchable from a moral/religious level.
Since Obama uses such a diversity of techniques to establish his ethos, I don’t think there’s much he could have improved on. He chose very targeted examples that allowed him to come across as an expert on racial issues, an intelligent person in general, and as someone with the purest of goals. The audience also resonated with the speech and it was generally well received, so it seems that they agree as well.
From Obama’s establishment of ethos in his speech “A More Perfect Union” we see that trying to approach the problem of protecting your reputation from many directions and trying to demonstrate competency in many facets is effective. Additionally, aligning yourself with both religion and patriotic views helps strengthen your platform as a candidate. Although political platforms might not be applicable to the general population, countering from many directions is a skill that can be transferred over to any rhetorical problem in general.
- Strang, S. C. (2014). Ethos: The rhetorical virtue. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 4(7), 1-6.
- Obama, B. (2008). A More Perfect Union. National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. [Transcript]
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