This paper examines the President Barack Obama’s Keynote address (2004) at Democratic National Convention (DNC) that was delivered in Boston, Massachusetts. This paper analyses address with the critical discourse analysis approach of Tuen A. Van Dijk in which he proposes Critical Discourse Studies (CDS) not including only analysis but also critical theory and critical application.
As Van Dijk defines Critical Discourse Studies as a Socio-cognitive approach, here I examine the address with interpretation (text) upon social tradition (context) including his rhetoric, public speaking, linkage of American dream and other.
Barack Obama, President of United States of America, delivered this keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (DNC) on the night of Tuesday, July 27, 2004. This speech is often considered the speech that made him president. President Obama was then Illinois State senator and United States senate candidate.
Following his unexpected victory in March 2004 as Illinois U.S. Senate Democratic primary, President Obama was selected to deliver this speech after being recognized as the overnight rising star within National Democratic Party that also led the speculation regarding the potentiality of being future president as well.
President Obama was there in the party with yet another presidential candidate John Kerry, later on President Obama was chosen to as keynote speaker. David Bernstein explains:
“The 2,297 words uttered over 17 minutes changed Obama’s profile overnight and made him a household name. Before the speech, the idea of Obama running for president in 2008 would have been laughable; he was a lowly state senator from Chicago’s Hyde Park, and while he stood a good chance at winning his U.S. Senate race, he would enter that powerful body ranked 99th out of 100 in seniority” (Par. 4).
Since he was chosen, he largely wrote his speech himself that was edited by Kerry Presidential Campaigning team. President delivered this speech within 20 minutes of second day of DNC that included his biography, stories of lifetime, ancestry, his own dream collaborating to larger American dream and his reasons to support John Kerry.
This keynote address was well accepted by people along with massive television coverage for more than 9 million audiences. Scholars and critic had concluded after the address that this keynote address cultivated the climate of racial reconciliation.
While analyzing President Obama’s address, this paper traces power and politics. “Politics is a struggle for power in order to put certain political, economic and social ideas into practice. In this process, language plays a crucial role, for every political action is prepared, accompanied, influenced and played by language” (Horvath, 45).
President Obama took macrostructures of reconciliation throughout his address. Obama urged audiences to walk with commonality since the beginning. While searching for the common ground to stand upon, he shared the story of his father, grandfather who worked hard to earn their living even as a slave to British and he led audiences to a dream that is shared.
Obama mentioned his father’s hard work and perseverance and the fact “my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, that’s shown as a beacon of freedom and opportunity” which persuaded audiences’ dreams for freedom and opportunities. It was an ideology living in America and it is still there.
That ideological togetherness gave him the comfort zone to speak as a brother though he mentioned “let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely”.
As Van Dijk indicates socio-cognition (social cognition and personal cognition) as the communication between society and discourse, that is the system of mental representations and processes of group members.
Social cognition is defined as “Socially shared representations of societal arrangements, groups and relations, as well as mental operations such as interpretation, thinking and arguing, differencing and learning, among others, together define what we understand by social cognition (Dijk 257).
Social cognition is the belief, which is shared among social representations and individual cognition as part of social movements. In addition, social cognition shapes the ideology, discourse, knowledge, value, ideas, norms and attitudes. In the same way, Obama here makes reconciling cognition among disparities. He spoke:
Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy; our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… (Par. 4).
David A. Frank and Mark Lawrence McPhail clearly note about this phrases that “Commencing from these disparate traumas, Obama encourages his composite audience to walk the path of commonality, and in the process, offers a rhetoric of consilience, an approach in which disparate members of a composite audience are invited to “jump together” out of their separate experiences in favor of a common set of values or aspirations” (572).
This idea of jumping together cheered up members of his composite audience. Those audiences sharing traumas of multiracial and disparities are hoped to walk through “class coalition appealing to the ideal of justice.” Writers’ duo further explained, “It thus has the potential of moving Americans beyond the complicity of racial division and toward coherent reconciliation” (572).
Similarly Van Dijk further explains, “critical discourse studies of racism, sexism or classism need to relate properties of discourse with these underlying, socially shared, representations, which group members use as a resource to talk about (members) of other groups” (Dijk 78).
All these underlying ideologies work together to build the social recognition, which is shared in the address of Obama. David and Mark argue while making connection to the address given by black leader W.E.B. Du Bois that,
Both speeches reflect, albeit differently, what W. E. B. Du Bois described as the twoness of black discourse and identity: the double-consciousness of being both African and American, and each reveals the tension between believing in the “promise” of American ideals and the knowledge of the broken promises of America’s racial realities.
Obama’s “post-racial” rhetoric was celebrated and embraced as a “transcendence of the very concerns that minority politicians have championed in the Party for decades.” Juxtaposed against Sharpton’s address, Barack Obama’s rhetoric reveals “a troubling public expectation that yearns for a denial of America’s racial history as well as its contemporary consequences. (572)
Obama clearly brings the notion of reconciliation as expected by his audiences during his address. He says:
There is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.
The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.
We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America (Par. 13).
This is not the vision of race as offered by Obama rather it is the vision of race less (ness). This address brings the color line, which merges souls of both black and white folks. While merging, it fulfills the collective dreams of freedom along with compromise and coherent consilience.
It thus provides us with an important opportunity to explore the potential for racial reconciliation from both sides of the color line, to confront the dark angel of race and through the courageous expression of conviction in action, strive to overcome it.
Bernstein, David. The Speech. 29 May. 2007. 10 Jul. 2014.
Frank, David A. and McPhail, Mark Lawrence. “Barack Obama’s Address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention: Trauma, Compromise, Consilience, and the (Im)Possibility of Racial Reconciliation”. Rhetoric & Public Affairs 8.4 (2005): 571-594.
Horváth, Juraj. Critical Discourse Analysis of Obama’s Political Discourse. 11 Jul. 2014. Online Posting. <http://www.pulib.sk/elpub2/FF/Ferencik2/pdf_doc/6.pdf>
Van Dijk, Tuen A. “Principles of critical discourse analysis”. Discourse & Society 4 (1993): 249-283.