- The Teleological Discourse of Barack Obama by Richard W. Leeman
Throughout the 2008 presidential election, political pundits, editorialists, and news reporters alike—even those who denounced his ideological underpinnings and policy positions—commented on the “eloquent, inspirational, electric and soaring” rhetoric of Barack Obama and observed that his discourse inspired many voters to engage the political contest more like a movement than a campaign (2). Although the fervor of the 2008 campaign has long since receded, most commentators, as well as rhetorical scholars, still acknowledge the significant rhetorical prowess of President Obama. In The Teleological Discourse of Barack Obama, Richard W. Leeman explicates Obama’s rhetorical grounding in a teleological perspective, a perspective that implicates “an ethical system of goals and essential natures,” as a potential explanation for his cultural and political [End Page 181] resonance. As Leeman makes clear in his deft theoretical discussion of telos and community, teleological discourse is a transcendent rhetoric grounded in the simultaneous articulation and constitution of a thing or concept’s inherent purpose, fundamental essence, and associated virtues. Although teleological discourse is defined by the active pursuit and performance of this essential purpose, goal, or character, the transcendent nature thereof puts substantial “ends” just beyond reach. As a result, suggests Leeman, the actual pursuit of the never-quite-achievable objective—frequently articulated as an ongoing journey or quest—stands as teleological rhetoric’s hallmark characteristic. In the case of Barack Obama’s rhetoric, the possibility of an entelechial political subjectivity—the definition of Americans as a people moving toward “a more perfect union of freedom, equality, and opportunity”—emerges as a distinctly American telos (156).
Having established the defining characteristics of telos-centered political rhetoric, Leeman then turns to the task of illustrating the depth and breadth of Obama’s teleological discourse. Beginning in chapter 2, Leeman investigates Obama’s pre-presidential discourse as illustrated in two autobiographical books (Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope), the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech (commonly understood as Obama’s introduction to the national political stage), and numerous speeches of the 2008 presidential campaign. Weaving complex thought strands from multiple texts, Leeman illustrates the way Obama deploys the teleological imperatives of equality and freedom, particularly in relation to racial diversity, political disparity, and economic inequality, to call for continued progress toward a more perfect union. The key point is that Obama’s recurring incorporation of “hope,” “liberty,” “justice,” and “opportunity” as the transcendent virtues associated with U.S. democracy issues an ethical call to balance individual interests with communal responsibility. And although a perfected union is always just beyond the rhetorical horizon, to heed Obama’s invitation to continue the distinctly American journey, a journey guided by the essence of American political subjectivity, “would move the nation further along the road toward a better day” (44). Chapter 3 illustrates Obama’s continued reliance on teleological themes as he transitioned from candidate to President. Concentrating on three different speech contexts—ceremonial, foreign policy, and domestic policy—Leeman suggests Obama’s teleological perspective remained a prominent feature of his presidential rhetoric. He observes, “Whether confronting the issues of [End Page 182] civility in discourse, just war and peace, troop surges in Afghanistan, military involvement in Libya, alternative energy policy, or the economy, Obama has brought teleology to bear” (118).
Leeman’s solid rhetorical scholarship experiences a slight drop-off as the study of teleological discourse shifts from an explicit focus on Obama to the rhetors with whom Obama is frequently compared. To demonstrate the pervasiveness of Obama’s teleology, chapter 4 offers analyses of such transformational presidential figures as Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, and suggests that while all three utilized the teleological perspective to inspire American audiences (Ronald Reagan more frequently and effectively than the others), none did so “as consistently” or “in precisely the same ways as has Barack Obama” (191). In similar fashion, chapter 5 turns to the teleological discourse of prominent civil rights rhetors: Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther...