The Teleological Discourse of Barack Obama

By Isaksen, Judy L. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2013 | Go to article overview

The Teleological Discourse of Barack Obama


Isaksen, Judy L., Presidential Studies Quarterly


The Teleological Discourse of Barack Obama. By Richard W. Leeman. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012. 275 pp.

Most Americans, regardless of their political persuasions, are captivated by President Barack Obama's soaring rhetoric. Even when his rhetorical brilliance is the target of criticism, as it certainly has been, few can deny the powerful and dynamic effect of his speeches. Richard W. Leeman, in his insightful and in-depth work, The Teleological Discourse of Barack Obama, sets out to identify exactly what it is about Obama's rhetoric that touches and inspires his listening audiences. In doing so, Leeman masterfully critiques not only Obama's rhetorical style, but also his leadership qualities, his values, and his vision for the American polity.

Leeman argues cogently that Obama's rhetorical eloquence is fundamentally grounded in the philosophy of teleology. Chapter 1, then, provides a thorough foundation by explaining teleological discourse, its characteristics, uses, aims, and paradoxes. Drawing from Aristotle, Leeman describes teleology as a system of ethics that is integral to the essential nature of the matter at hand; achieving the telos, or ideal goal, is an endless process, for one can never fully attain it. Yet this process is a hopeful endeavor, for virtue emerges from the striving for telos rather than from telos itself. Leeman further explicates teleology by employing the archetypal teleological metaphor within our national imagination--namely, the idea of a journey--which inherently privileges a historical view, unites past, present, and future, and relies heavily on optimism and patience.

It is through this critical lens that Leeman unpacks Obama's rhetoric, starting with the teleological rhetoric used in his prepresidential discourse. For example, in Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (New York: Crown, 2007), Obama's teleological perspective on life is quite evident as he repeatedly searches for community and unity while also preserving diversity. In doing so, Obama measures progress by our attempts to attain our telos, even though we might fall short. As Leeman comments, "to live in unity and absolute community with each other would be to achieve God-like perfection. Perfectibility, not perfection, is the teleological ethic" (p. 31). Likewise, Obama's March 2008 apologia, "A More Perfect Union," fully embodies teleology, as its title blatantly announces: we are not seeking a perfect union, but a more perfect one. In this speech, the divisive comments of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, as well as a country divided by race, stand in opposition to the teleological American journey: striving toward a unified nation while also retaining our diversity is the essence of becoming a more perfect union.

Having fully established that Obama's discourse was rooted in teleology prior to becoming president, the book's Chapter 3 explores his effective use of such discourse while governing in his first three years in office. As Leeman unpacks three types of rhetoric--epideictic, foreign policy, and domestic policy--he nuances the variety of strategic ways that Obama deftly chooses to use teleology. …

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