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The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations

Establishing the Obama Presidency

Justin S. Vaughn

Publication Year: 2014

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).

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Presidential Rhetoric and Political Communication


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xvi

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.”1 The seemingly impossible came true as the United States of America stood on the cusp of electing and then...

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pp. xvii-xx

The genesis of this volume occurred via text message during a conference we coordinated in Bryan, Texas, in March, 2010. Representatives from a range of disciplines—communication, political science, history, English, gender studies, business administration, Africana studies, and more—had...

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Chapter 1. Barack Obama and the Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations

Jennifer R. Mercieca and Justin S. Vaughn

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pp. 1-29

“As we stand at this crossroads of history, the eyes of all people in all nations are once again upon us,” President Barack Obama observed in his February 24, 2009, Address Before a Joint Session of Congress. He believed that the world was “watching to see what we do with this moment, waiting...

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Chapter 2. A Lighthouse at the Crossroads: Barack Obama’s Call for Agonistic Democracy

Jay P. Childres

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pp. 30-49

The 2008 presidential election was widely characterized as being as much about outgoing President George W. Bush as it was about the candidates running for office. With job approval ratings at or below 30 percent in 2008, Bush seemed to have overstayed his welcome in the White House.1...

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Chapter 3. The “We” in “Yes, We Can”: Obama’s Audience, the Audience’s Obama, and Consubstantiality

Eric Dieter

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pp. 50-66

In May 2007, during one of the candidate’s first Sunday-morning interviews, George Stephanopoulos asked Barack Obama what “special qualities” he thought he possessed.1 “I think that I have the capacity to get people to recognize themselves in each other,” Obama responded, echoing...

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Chapter 4. Overcoming Institutional Burdens: President Obama’s Rhetorical Leadership in His First Year

Brandon Rottinghaus

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pp. 67-89

There is ongoing debate about whether presidents can lead public opinion. To address this debate in the context of the themes of this volume, this chapter investigates how, when, and under what conditions presidents succeed at leading public opinion on public policy. Specifically, in this chapter...

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Chapter 5. Where’s the Media?: President Obama, the Public, and News Coverage

Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha

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pp. 90-108

Presidential leadership of public opinion is a central topic of debate in the presidential studies literature. On the one hand are those who argue that presidential rhetoric is an effective and important tool of presidential leadership.1 Presidents may speak to improve their job approval ratings,2 set...

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Chapter 6. The United States and the World: The Rhetorical Dimensions of Obama’s Foreign Policy

David Zarefsky

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pp. 109-129

Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency at a time when the place of the United States in the world was under review. The war in Iraq had become unpopular. Indeed, one of Obama’s strengths as a candidate was that he had been an early and persistent opponent of that war. For many...

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Chapter 7. Resetting America’s Role in the World: President Obama’s Rhetoric of (Re)Conciliation and Partnership

Jason A. Edwards

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pp. 130-150

In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama declared that “we are ready to lead once more.”1 The president’s argument that the United States was ready to lead again implied that eight years of George W. Bush administration foreign policy had diminished America’s global leadership...

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Chapter 8. Obama’s Two Bodies: A Study in American Economic Theology

James Arnt Aune

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pp. 151-169

Grounded perhaps in our collective unconscious and in dim institutional memory, the American president was created out of the ashes of the medieval mythos of the King’s Two Bodies, first brought to light by the medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz.1 He describes the transformation in the concept of...

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Chapter 9. The Secular Messianic Style in Barack Obama’s “Call to Renewal” Speech

Catherine L. Langford

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pp. 170-190

In 2004, Barack Obama catapulted into the national political scene when, as a candidate for the United States Senate, he gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. His speech confirmed public speculation that Obama was the new face of the Democratic Party. Chicago...

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Chapter 10. The Exodus as Burden: Obama, Agency, and the Containment Thesis

Dave Tell

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pp. 191-208

In a much-quoted passage of Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama described, as a sort of conversion experience, his pathos-packed realization that the story of the Exodus could impart transcendent meaning to the daily struggles of “ordinary black people.” Sitting “at the foot of the...

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Chapter 11. Picturing the Presidents: Obama and the Visual Politics of White House Art

Cara Finnegan

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pp. 209-234

In November of 2009, Rachel Maddow asked her MSNBC viewers, “Is there a message in White House paintings?”1 Picking up on a Politico.com piece, Maddow explained that the work of art hung prominently in the President’s private dining room had been switched more than once since...

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Chapter 12. Michelle Obama, “Mom-in-Chief”: Gender, Race, and Familialism in Media Representations of the First Lady

Bonnie J. Dow

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pp. 235-256

On February 24, 2009, when President Barack Obama made his first address to a joint session of Congress, First Lady Michelle Obama watched from the gallery, wearing a sleeveless purple dress. Mrs. Obama’s apparel became the subject of media discussion in the days that followed, primarily...

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Epilogue. Carrying the Burden: How Barack Obama Both Embraced and Diminished Heroic Expectations

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pp. 257-264

On February 24, 2009, then newly inaugurated President Barack Obama believed that he had been called “to govern in extraordinary times,” which was both “a tremendous burden” and “a great privilege.” As the essays in this volume reflect, Obama’s first term in office was defined, in large part...

Contributor Biographies

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pp. 265-268


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pp. 269-279

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781623491215
E-ISBN-10: 1623491215
Print-ISBN-13: 9781623490430

Page Count: 266
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Presidential Rhetoric and Political Communication
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OCLC Number: 871190051
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Obama, Barack.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 2009-.
  • Presidents -- United States -- Election -- 2008.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States.
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