Visionary and Visual: Looking Back on “Yes We Can” as Obama’s “I Have a Dream”

January 19, 2009 · Print This Article

By Andrew William Smith, Editor

January 19, 2009

Rhetoric holds power. The primal matter of political meaning fused to my consciousness at a very young age, sitting on the living room carpet in my childhood home in Cleveland, Ohio. My folks had an old vinyl record with the landmark speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and I wore that thing out sitting on that floor, often crying, often memorizing the words as this audio replica of King spoke them.

Born in late 1967, I always took pride that I shared the earth for just a few months with Dr. King, that my daddy had marched with him in Selma and heard him speak at Soldier Field. I still listen to and study those speeches today, and I am sure that our president- elect studied those speeches in developing his unique stage presence on the stump.

A year ago, in early January 2008, Barack Obama’s speeches packed an emotional spell that left me spellbound and speechless. When it comes time to talk the politics of rhetoric and the rhetoric of politics, Aristotle is always in the house. For decades, the profound pull of pathos (emotion) has held the American electorate captive. Politics is a profession where logos (logic or intelligence) and ethos (morals or ethics-or sadly, their lack) could change the course of history. But emotions still trump the other appeals when it comes to winning, when it comes to that private moment behind the curtain of decision. For the power of pathos, television is more than just a tool; election season after election season, the entire creative force of campaign management understands the visceral power that the visual packs in persuading voters.

But in the past, the emotional powers had too often been aligned with fear and hatred. Television ads could terrify voters as Lyndon Johnson did with his infamous Daisy ad in the early days of TV’s psychic tyranny or as George Bush Sr. bludgeoned Dukakis with the Willlie Horton ad. The notion of “a negative campaign ad” so defines the norm that it constitutes a self-referential cliché. Sure, there have been positive campaign ads to pull patriotic heart-strings, but if Reagan’s “Morning in America” mom-and-apple-pie-mongering from 1984 is the only example we can conjure of a positive campaign, maybe the negative isn’t that negative after all.

As a political force, television ads were a medium born of the network television era, when three or four channels held most of our imaginations for the duration of a political season. Things morphed with the massive influence of cable news in the 1990s, and then, just in time for the 2008 campaign, horizontal networks of DIY propaganda proliferated like urban junk mail or rural weeds. With a website called YouTube, this viral multiplication on the virtual plane meant that the most potent piece of visual rhetoric evident in the 2008 presidential campaign came from the unofficial contributions of pop stars, from a video created by of the Black Eyed Peas, produced by Bob’s son Jesse Dylan, and featuring the voices and faces of Common, John Legend, Scarlett Johansson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and many others.

“A Rock Obama” – Art by Patty Arriagada, Photo by Andrew William Smith

Of the dozens of brilliant speeches Barack Obama delivered in the last 20 months, one stands out as his “I Have a Dream” moment. One speech to be studied for generations shifted the emotional, popular, and rhetorical tides to make possible what the world celebrates on Tuesday, January 20, 2009. A little more than one year before he will take his oath as our first president of African descent, Obama’s speech after the New Hampshire primary pitched poetic riffs that could be sung from rooftops and remembered by schoolchildren. “Yes We Can,” the speech from New Hampshire and the video that followed just a few weeks later, ignited the grassroots campaign and inspired millions. Like Martin King, Obama is a brilliant borrower of epic themes: “Si Se Puede” was coined by Cesar Chavez and had been chanted by farmworkers; “Yes We Can” might be familiar to sports fans as well, since former Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Dave Cash made that the team’s slogan in the 1970s as well.

Obama-who is notably a quite literate music fan, well-schooled in the lyrical attributes of blues, rock, folk, and hip-hop-proves here why he garnered the nickname Barackstar. He is channeling John F. Kennedy, yes, but the voice of the MC and the minister are here, too. He is the poet-preacherman of the present moment, reaching out to those in the crosshairs of fear at the historical crossroads, the people that most need to hear his rhetoric of hope and act upon it.

From King’s unforgettable toolkit, Obama takes two techniques much like the bluesman takes two chords, and he uses them to incredible rhetorical effect.

To begin, Obama reminds us again and again of the unity in opposites that form a patriotic umbrella of understanding, unmistakably American in its themes and undeniably magical as a meme. With Martin King, this unity in diversity delivered the famous phrase and promised the possible moment when “sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”

Early in his speech, Obama builds on these trademark poetic oppositions when he invites everyone to feel a part of this time “whether we are rich or poor, black or white, Latino or Asian, whether we hail from Iowa or New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina.” Later, as he nears his crescendo, he gets a little more specific, and the appeal reaches not to his moneyed handlers or backers but to everyman and everywoman when he says “the struggles of the textile workers in Spartanburg are not so different than the plight of the dishwasher in Las Vegas, that the hopes of the little girl who goes to the crumbling school in Dillon are the same as the dreams of the boy who learns on the streets of L.A.”

The effective use of opposition gets a visual bump by the use of black and white film in the “Yes We Can” video montage. Many possible meanings spring from this symbolism of black and white: the historical debt owed to the age of black and white TV when Obama’s heroes were at the helm; the black and white of the moral or ideological differences between Bush’s third term and anything but that; the black and white of Obama’s parentage-black father, white mother; the black and white that suggests a leveling, a leaving behind, a less complicated moment where even the last shall be first and where’s vote counts no more than mine.

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How Obama stretches his Kumbaya moments without them ever feeling contrived or cheesy bears further dissection and discussion, but in this speech he works them and well. Yes, he works it. He works the crowd, hitting each high and low, each pause and plea, each emphatic wave of the arm or moment of eye contact with the cameras.

Some have suggested it’s the comforting, smoky baritone of his voice that makes it matter, prompting British writer Andrew Gimson to suggest,  “Just as those who love opera will do almost anything to hear a favoured singer, so those of us who value the art of rhetoric want to go and hear Mr. Obama.”

The other, more fabled move Obama takes from King’s playbook comes with what I like to call the anchor phrase-also known as the chorus, the refrain, as the intentional and perfect repetition. Obama’s simple cry of “Yes we can” comes late in the speech-hypnotic and mesmerizing and mantra-like. It follows just a few key phrases that invoke American history much in the manner that Kind did with “I Have a Dream.” It provides the lyrical potency needed for translation into the visionary video.

The speech finds its center of gravity and gives. Back in January 2008, Obama spoke these words:

“We’ve been asked to pause for a reality check. We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told we’re not ready or that we shouldn’t try or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.

It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.

Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.”

The “unlikely story” line sets up the crescendo. The “unlikely story” seduces listeners with its irrational, emotional, and undeniable intoxicating cry for hope in times that the evidence tells us are terribly hopeless. Then, it uses an indefinite pronoun and a passive verb as kicker just four times (the resonating return to “it was . . . “), and each of those four times follows that easy construction with a cavalcade of vivid emotion and the voice of history.

Yes we did. The pathos of the positive purified my own cynicism about people and place, about these people and this place. Yes we did. Yes we did scream and dance and shout and get kicked out of a hotel in Cookeville, Tennessee as I felt like the salt in Jesse Jackson’s tears.  Yes we did watch YouTube videos of spontaneous street parties all over the country and world that resembled nothing we had ever seen before, a global gasp of relief, a global gust of generosity being bestowed on the citizens of an empire that had not recently earned it. Yes we did.


One Response to “Visionary and Visual: Looking Back on “Yes We Can” as Obama’s “I Have a Dream””

  1. WicketBF2 on January 20th, 2009 1:05 pm

    Need a towel to clean yourself off? Yes you do.

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