The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency

The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency

The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency

The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency


Campaign rhetoric helps candidates to get elected, but its effects last well beyond the counting of the ballots; this was perhaps never truer than in Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. Did Obama create such high expectations that they actually hindered his ability to enact his agenda? Should we judge his performance by the scale of the expectations his rhetoric generated, or against some other standard? The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency grapples with these and other important questions.

Barack Obama's election seemed to many to fulfill Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of the "long arc of the moral universe... bending toward justice." And after the terrorism, war, and economic downturn of the previous decade, candidate Obama's rhetoric cast broad visions of a change in the direction of American life. In these and other ways, the election of 2008 presented an especially strong example of creating expectations that would shape the public's views of the incoming administration. The public's high expectations, in turn, become a part of any president's burden upon assuming office.

The interdisciplinary scholars who have contributed to this volume focus their analysis upon three kinds of presidential burdens: institutional burdens (specific to the office of the presidency); contextual burdens (specific to the historical moment within which the president assumes office); and personal burdens (specific to the individual who becomes president).


For many, election night November 4, 2008, seemed as though it might be the moment when Martin Luther King’s long “arc of the moral universe” finally did bend “toward justice.” The seemingly impossible came true as the United States of America stood on the cusp of electing and then inaugurating its first African American president, Barack Obama. Many readers, of course, will remember those days and will have been equally cognizant of the importance and possibility in those events as they were transpiring. Contemporary politics, however, rarely lets us linger in such moments, but instead always rushes ahead with new stories about transitions and appointments and policy initiatives and the like. Nevertheless, we contend that it is not only worth remembering those early moments of what became the Obama presidency but also analyzing them, particularly with an eye to the way that the moment was rhetorically constructed and how this construction shaped the early fortunes of this historic administration.

The essays in this volume represent the work of an interdisciplinary group of scholars who participated in Texas A&M University’s March, 2010, “Rhetoric, Politics, and the Obama Phenomenon” conference. When we began planning a conference on Barack Obama’s meteoric rise from little-known Illinois state senator to president of the United States, we thought that we would focus on what seemed like the “Obama Phenomenon”—the throngs of crowds, the celebrity-like popularity, the strategic use of new media, and the talent for powerful oratory. What we could not have predicted was that one year into Obama’s first term the Obama phenomenon would have turned into Obama’s phenomenal burden as overlapping sets of responsibilities, hurdles, and constraints shaped the ways he approached and performed his new position. The essays in this volume reflect an interest both in the phenomenon that won him the presidency and the historic and contemporary burdens of that presidency.

Since Obama’s victory, scholars have published numerous commentaries on the significance of the Obama campaign and election. Some of these pieces can be found in special issues of journals or edited volumes like this one, others in monographs and articles that analyze the 2008 campaign and election, particularly the role race played in it, or volumes that assess the new president’s performance in various dimensions of his . . .

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