Communication Currents

Barack Obama and the American Dream

October 1, 2007
Political Communication

Barack Obama's address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention produced an enormous response from the audience at the convention and those watching on television. It immediately transformed the then largely unknown state senator into a national figure, helped him win a United States Senate seat in Illinois by a landslide, and set the stage for his presidential campaign. The speech has been widely praised as one of the most powerful and effective speeches of the last twenty-five years. At the same time, neither scholars nor media commentators have recognized that the underlying message that gave the speech its power was the way Obama recast the “American Dream.”

The conventional wisdom in American politics has been that since the Reagan revolution of 1980, the nation has become what some commentators call a right leaning nation in which conservative policies are supported by a majority of the public. Public opinion polls consistently have reported that far more Americans label themselves as conservative than as liberal. The oddity is that when pollsters have looked at popular attitudes on specific issues from Social Security to the environment to even taxation and social programs, the public supports policies that are much more liberal than one would expect.

How can people label themselves as conservative, but then endorse proposals that are moderate to liberal? The answer is that political attitudes are shaped more by values than by detailed policy arguments. . In relation to values, conservative politicians, most notably Ronald Reagan, have used stories about the American Dream to convince Americans that values like hard work, opportunity, and progress are conservative, not liberal values.

Scholars of rhetoric who have studied Reagan have found that he consistently told stories about how the greatness of America was created by the heroism of ordinary people. He described a nation in which limitless opportunity was available to every person who worked hard and stayed committed to basic American values. In effect, Reagan made stories of the American Dream his own personal political property and put responsibility for success on the individual, rather than the government. These stories had the effect of undercutting support for government social programs and convincing millions of Americans to embrace conservatism, even when conservative policies were not necessarily in their interest.

The speech was effective largely because it successfully recast the story of the American Dream. A close look at Obama's acclaimed speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, reveals that he said relatively little about specific policies. He argued in favor of protecting American jobs, improving health care and education, and supporting our troops. He also strongly opposed the war in Iraq. Virtually every Democrat supported similar policies, as did many Republicans. It wasn't policy that made his speech stand out. Instead, what made Obama's speech so meaningful were the values he endorsed and his use of the American Dream narrative to tie those values together into a coherent pattern supporting liberalism.

To pundits who divide America into red and blue states for Republicans and Democrats, Obama said:

But I've got news for them too. We worship an “awesome God” in the Blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red states. We coach Little League in the Blue states and yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.  

In these memorable words, Obama emphasized the commonalities shared by all Americans. He also demonstrated that we all want a better world for our nation by discussing what he called “small miracles.” One small miracle is “That we can tuck in our children at night and know they are fed and clothed and safe from harm.” He then listed other small miracles including freedom of expression, freedom to start a business, and the right to participate in the political process.

However, Obama did more than embrace common values at the heart of the American Dream. He also used small stories to show the nation was letting down ordinary Americans. He described workers who have lost their jobs to competition from Mexico and “now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour” and a father who has lost his job and doesn't have a way to “pay $4500 a month for the drugs his son needs, without health benefits he counted on.” Later, he described a hard working young woman “who has the grades, had the drive, has the will, but doesn't have the money to go to college” and a young Marine from East Moline, Illinois, named Shamus, who had enlisted and was headed to Iraq and was “all that any of us might ever hope for in a child.” Obama's point was that these ordinary people had done everything right, but they still were suffering. They had strong values and had worked hard, but were being denied access to the American Dream because the government had not lived up to its side of the bargain.

Unlike most liberals, however, Obama did not focus all responsibility on the government to do something for the people. At several points, Obama emphasized that every American has a responsibility to work hard and care for his or her family. He said that “people don't expect government to solve their problems” and then embraced personal responsibility as a key to welfare and educational reform. In relation to education, he was particularly pointed, stating that inner city parents know that “government alone can't teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent and that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets.” But these personal values were not enough because Americans “sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. They know we can do better.” And to do better required only an appropriate balance between the responsibilities of government and the individual.

In many ways, Obama's vision of the American Dream is similar to that of Ronald Reagan. The primary difference is that where Reagan featured personal values and deemphasized communitarian values, Obama reversed this balance. In so doing, Obama's address may be a key rhetorical turning point in American politics. By making a case not for helping a particular group, but for helping an entire nation, Obama recast the American Dream as a liberal, not a conservative story. Given his meteoric rise in American politics, the power of that story is obvious. Obama continues to emphasize the American Dream in his campaign speeches and his book, The Audacity of Hope. The outcome of the campaign to become the Democratic nominee for president in 2008 may come down to his Obama's hopeful version of the American Dream.