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Prepared Remarks of President Barack Obama: Back to School Event
President Barack Obama held a speech at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia in 2009 in which he stressed the importance of education. It was broadcasted nationally to students of all ages in order to get the message out: Do not give up because “you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country” which is sure to set every patriotic heart on fire in sheer pride. To think that the entire future of the country is depending on me! That is the reaction that President Obama is hoping for in all the students who were listening because that feeling of importance will most likely motivate them to work hard for a brighter tomorrow and ultimately pave the way to greatness.
The composition of the speech is neither complex nor difficult to follow. It has a very simple structure with a short introduction followed by the message of the speech supported by different arguments and ending in a short summary of everything that has been said so far. As previously mentioned, the speech is directed towards students of all ages hence its simplicity. This trait is one of the most prominent features of the speech seeing that the level of abstraction in both the use of imagery (or lack thereof) and hypotactic sentence structure is very limited.
However, by opening the speech with a simple “[…] how’s everybody doing today?” Obama sets the scene and reaffirms his authority not just as the most powerful man in the world but, more importantly, as an equal. Such a use of ethos is nothing new but it works, because an audience does not want to be talked down to by an authority like President Obama, even though he has the power to do so. This is also why he chooses to address the students directly by mentioning almost every grade and giving them a sense of familiarity: “And for those of you in kindergarten, or starting middle or high school, it’s your first day in a new school, […]. I imagine there are some seniors out there who are feeling pretty good right now, […]”.
As a matter of fact, President Obama spends the entirety of the introduction subtly explaining why people should like him. By telling the story of how he did not want to get up early in the morning to be homeschooled by his mother he clarifies that he is no super human. He was once like the students he is now addressing. This is also why he refers to an Xbox as a device to pass the time. Such a mention shows that President Obama is within the same cultural frame of reference or, as the kids would say, “hip”.
The “real” speech starts when President Obama says: “[…] I have something important to discuss with you”. This is not typically something one would hear in an ordinary speech to a room of adults because they know when to listen whereas High School students are more likely to lose interest, which means that President Obama needs to bring attention to the fact that what he is saying is important. And what exactly is it that is so important? Responsibility. Responsibility to the teachers and parents of America and – not afraid to sound grandeur – yourself and your country. He explains these two terms separately. Firstly it is described how no one is useless and that we can all contribute: “Every single one of you has something to offer”. He even goes on to give examples and ideas on what the future might look like for someone who discovers a hidden talent in a certain class in school. Secondly this bright future is paired with what is relevant to the young students at this very point in time, such as “[…] the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math […]”, “[…] the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies […]” and “[…] the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes […]”. This is a powerful trick because one of the biggest problems with students today is that they struggle to see the relevance of what they are learning. By offering this perspective President Obama is able to show a generation of students that they truly are the ones who shall inherit the Earth.
The next part of the speech is used mainly to assert President Obama’s authority once again by making him identifiable. He states that he knows how difficult life can be sometimes and that he has had his share of troubles himself but that it is possible to break the negative social heritage. He acknowledges that some people have it worse than others because of their appearance, ethnicity, or financial status but “That’s no excuse for not trying”. This is a typical American value and in fact, President Obama even talks about the American dream, which is based on the notion of creating your own happiness and future. The Pathos-O-Meter just hit the roof! He then goes on to personify this dream by listing three people from different states in the US who fought against all the odds and have achieved what was considered the impossible. This part of the speech is the very core of the central message. Saying this as a politician in any country other than the United States simply would not work (at least not to the same extent) because only the Americans value the “from newspaper boy to president”-dream this much. There are countless Hollywood films with this theme and they have almost all been box office hits seeing that many Americans define themselves and their nationality in regard to exactly this idea. President Obama is well aware of this and by telling the students that they get to be as Jazmin, Andoni and Shantell as long as they study hard he is effectively saying that “if X, then Y” which obviously is not true in every case. Some would even consider this a flaw in his argumentation but the truth is that ultimately it is just a rhetorical tool that works. It is likely that older students who have been taught argumentation analysis in school are able to see through this trick which will take away some of President Obama’s credibility, however, these students will also have realized on their own that education is important no matter who says it or how they say it. Because, despite the fact that the speech has a very American attitude and outlook on life, there is at least one universal truth that is applicable in every country: Knowledge is our strongest trait and it shall pave our way to greatness.
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