Barack Obama's Significance for Rhetoric and Composition

By Allen, Ira; Flynn, Elizabeth A. | College Composition and Communication, February 2016 | Go to article overview

Barack Obama's Significance for Rhetoric and Composition


Allen, Ira, Flynn, Elizabeth A., College Composition and Communication


This symposium reaches print as the US electoral machinery-thus far, the bizarre and often troubling marketing campaigns of both party primaries- whirs and spins and thuds into high gear. This coming autumn, in November 2016, voters throughout the United States (and writing in from abroad) will cast ballots, offering guidance to an Electoral College that, by tradition, will adhere to that guidance in selecting a president. Next winter, in January 2017, the "Age of Obama," called such appreciatively or derisively, will come to an end. This symposium, "Barack Obama's Significance for Rhetoric and Composition," aims to provoke and renew disciplinary conversations about the meaning of an age now nearly past, as well as to pose questions that resonate for presidential rhetoric generally. As scholars of rhetoric and writing, and classroom teachers, taking up Morris Young's call for attunement to "deeper-seeded problems that only continue to injure those who we often assume are provided with new opportunities for expression" in this age (586), we ask here what Obama's rhetoric signifies for (or how it disruptively Signifies, à la Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) our field. In so doing, we acknowledge that the rhetorical significance of Barack Obama goes beyond Barack Obama. Whatever his candidacy and presidency will have been for our field will impact, for years to come, how we treat presidential composing, race in the public sphere, and rhetorical ethics generally. So, how does Obama signify (for) rhetoric and composition? What does the Age of Obama mean for the study and teaching of writing in the United States today?

At the very least, we can say this age has comprised some extraordinary contradictions, revolving around issues central to our field: the value of eloquence, the contingency of rhetorical efficacy, and the ethics of persuasion. In her 2008 NCTE presidential address, Kathleen Yancey underscores the kairotic power of candidate Obama's rhetoric: "through writing in many media to multiple audiences . . . an unlikely candidate became a spokesman for a generation of hope" (317). Though not always in celebratory tones, it was more or less universally agreed that candidate Barack Obama was rhetorically gifted. By contrast, though President Barack Obama is no less eloquent, his nearly eight years in office have been marked by an enduring inability to persuade broad swathes of the populace of even such basic facts as his citizenship. As political scientist Joseph Lowndes notes in a compelling discussion of presidential bodies, "During [Obama's] term in office his presidency has been challenged on birthright grounds; he has been visually portrayed as a figure of urban menace; and a major oppositional movement to his presidency emerged that is at least partially motivated by race" (470). Obama's tenure in the White House has met with some of the most resistant, and most personally rejecting, public rhetorics faced by any president to date.

Meanwhile, the ethical charm Obama's rhetoric held for rhetoric and composition scholars in those early years seems largely to have worn off. Democratic disillusionment has set in among many who once thought his composing style particularly virtuous. But was candidate Obama's rhetoric ever really all that "good"? What is "good" presidential rhetoric for teachers and scholars of writing? Are we right to continue taking our lead from Jeffrey Tulis's classic The Rhetorical Presidency, which contends that the "essential task" of the presidency is now to "promote policy initiatives nationwide, and to inspirit the population" (4)? In raising such questions, this symposium builds on lines of thought pursued by rhetoric, composition, and communication scholars in recent volumes like Matthew Abraham and Erec Smith's The Making of Barack Obama: The Politics of Persuasion and Justin Vaughn and Jennifer Mercieca's The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency. As is appropriate for the end of an era, however, this symposium often strikes a critical note. …

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