Obama’s Farewell Address

Hello! Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day! I hope everyone can take a moment today to appreciate the work and sacrifices of this great civil rights leader. Unfortunately, I do not have any analyses of Dr. King’s speeches today. I have covered those in previous posts. However, today I present an analysis of President Obama’s farewell address, perhaps fitting today, as the final speech of our first African-American president.

But first I must say thank you to my many readers. I have recently reached many big milestones. I have now been writing this blog for more than four years. This month, in fact, is my 50th month of writing the blog. I have also recently passed the mark of having more than 400,000 total views! In 2016 alone, I had over 186,000 views, with more than 140,000 new visitors from 198 different countries. My posts on Martin Luther King’s speeches remain my most popular articles. Sadly, I still have been unsuccessful in getting my book published but I will continue to work on that this year. I am glad the blog continues to be useful to so many students, teachers and professors around the world. Thanks for reading!

Back to business…

After eight years of being the president of the United States, Barack Obama gave his farewell address this past week in a sold-out auditorium in Chicago where he began his political career. The speech was nearly an hour long, and covered many aspects of his two terms as president. He teared up near the end of the speech praising his wife Michelle for her support and leadership as first lady. He also thanked his staff for all of their hard work for many years.

Rhetorically, the speech was interesting since it is one of the few speeches by President Obama that was not confidently looking toward the future. Of course, since he was giving a farewell address, he was looking more backwards to what he had accomplished than what he would be doing in the future. However, he spent the bulk of the speech describing current threats to our democracy and asking the younger generation of Americans to save the country from those threats.

There were no soaring metaphorical passages or grandiose ideas in the speech. However, there was an amazing variety of metaphors used in the speech, once again demonstrating that it is nearly impossible to talk about politics without using dozens of common metaphors. In this case, we find examples of personification, and metaphors of vision, animals, shapes and sizes, strong chemicals, books, games, food, machines, buildings and journeys.

All examples below are from the transcript of the speech. Some quotes from the speech are repeated more than once if they contain more than one metaphor. The metaphors in question are presented in italics.  You can read the full transcript of the speech here.

Personification

It is very common to describe a country as if it is a person. This occurs in two different ways: either the government of a country or its citizens as a collective whole is imagined as a person who has a beating heart, has strength or weakness, can stand up to something, stand for something, fight back against bullies, or even buckle under pressure. The term buckle, by the way, is derived from the 16th century English word bokelen meaning “to arch the body.”

beating heart

Example: “After eight years as your President, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government.”

strength and weakness

Example: “And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.”

stand up

Example: “Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. That’s up to us.”


stand for/ bullying neighbors

Example: “Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world — unless we give up what we stand for — (applause) — and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.”

buckle

Example: “But protecting our way of life, that’s not just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear.”

Vision

Political speeches often contain metaphors of vision, i.e., speakers take the physical properties of seeing and extend those properties to abstract processes such as implementing governmental policies. Thus we have metaphors such as being in focus on something, setting sights on a goals, having a vision of a completed process or being able to describe political differences as a spectrum.

sights

Example: “…if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high. But that’s what we did.”

focus

Example: “That’s what I want to focus on tonight: The state of our democracy.”

vision

Example: “There’s a second threat to our democracy — and this one is as old as our nation itself. After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic.”

spectrum

Example: “You can see it not just in statistics, you see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.”

Animals

Nature is one of the most common sources of political metaphors. Although we do not usually describe politicians as animals, we do use our common experiences with animals and pets to describe political positions or processes. One famous example is the lame duck, the position of the outgoing president in the time after the presidential election and before his or her successor takes office. The metaphor is derived from an old comparison to a duck that cannot walk because of an injured leg, sometimes attributed to a quote from Abraham Lincoln in 1863. In another example, we must often put our dogs on a leash to control them. When a dog or other strong animal is unleashed, it can run wild and cause unexpected consequences. Thus, metaphorically, an unexpected set of events may be described as being unleashed by a person in charge. Finally, wild animals, especially big carnivores such as wolves or tigers, jump or pounce on their prey as they try to kill it. Metaphorically, suddenly criticizing an opponent in politics may also be described as pouncing.

lame duck

Example: “You can tell that I’m a lame duck because nobody is following instructions.”

unleash

Example: “If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history…”

pounce

Example: “How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing?”

Shapes and Sizes

We often describe abstract shapes in terms of well-known boxes, circles or spheres. Thus we can talk about corners of the globe, even though, of course, the world is spherical and has no corners. The world or any abstract process can also be described as a balloon that can expand or shrink depending on the air pressure inside.   We can also describe a process or an argument as if it is in the middle of a picture frame. George Lakoff has famously trained many politicians to frame arguments in certain ways to not only win the argument but become successful in achieving their political goals. Finally, we also talk about economic processes or political attitudes as being in a bubble. This term can have two metaphorical connotations. In some cases, the bubble describes an untenable set of circumstances that will eventually collapse, as when a balloon pops from too much pressure. Many experts talk about the housing bubble that burst in 2008 when housing prices suddenly fell. In other cases, a bubble refers to the close-mindedness of groups of people who only believe information given to them from like-minded friends, radio announcers or television pundits.

corner

Example: “Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country.”

expand

Example: “That’s why we cannot withdraw from big global fights — to expand democracy, and human rights, and women’s rights, and LGBT rights.”

shrink

Example: “A shrinking world, growing inequality; demographic change and the specter of terrorism — these forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy, as well.”

frame

Example: “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”

bubble

Example: “For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.”

Example: “And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.”

Strong Chemicals

In an interesting and unusual metaphor, Barack Obama describes certain political processes as being corrosive, as if strong chemicals are eating away at a metal surface.

corrosive

Example: “But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic ideal.”

Example: “America, we weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen not just as misguided but as malevolent.”

Literature

Political speeches often contain metaphors of literature such as telling a story, finding the correct narrative or turning the page on a new process. However, Obama’s farewell address was notably lacking in these metaphors, perhaps because his terms in office, and his narrative, are finished. However, there is one literature metaphor, opening a new chapter, used to describe his groundbreaking work to open new relations with Cuba.

new chapter

Example: “…if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people…”

Games

Politicians are famous for comparing elections or economic processes to games or professional sports. In this case, Barack Obama describes the economy as a game that is fixed or rigged against working class Americans by corrupt politicians. He also describes the economy as a zero-sum game, a perception that the loss in wages or opportunities of the working class means huge gains for the corporations.

game

Example: “…the laid-off factory worker; the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills — convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful — that’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.”

zero-sum game

Example: “And we have shown that our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.”

Food

Everyone eats so everyone is familiar with metaphors of food. A very common food metaphor used to describe a political process is to say it is a recipe as if one is baking a cake. Obama describes a theoretical government that only serves the rich and not the poor as a recipe for cynicism among our citizens. He also uses the metaphor of food scraps. After a large meal, most of the food is eaten but small portions called scraps may remain. Historically, in rich British and American families, the family members ate the main portion of the meal while the servants or the dogs were given the scraps. In cases of extreme hunger, poor people even had to fight for scraps just to get enough to eat.

recipe

Example: “…the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills — convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful — that’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.”

scraps

Example: “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”

Machines

Government programs and political processes are often compared to machines that can crank out the same results time after time. In this case, Obama refers to terrorists as groups with a propaganda machine distorting truth and lies. Economic processes can also be compared to computers. When a computer stops working it may need to be restarted or rebooted to get it going again. Obama uses the idea of rebooting to describe his administration’s success in saving the auto industry. A complex machine can also be shut down if it is getting out of control. Obama uses this metaphor to describe his work to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program.   Finally, sometimes machines break down and must be repaired or fixed. Metaphorically we can describe broken economic or political processes as something that can be fixed.

machine

Example: “It represents the fear of change; the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently; a contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable; an intolerance of dissent and free thought; a belief that the sword or the gun or the bomb or the propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.”

reboot

Example: “If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history…”

 

shut down

Example: “…shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot…”

fix

Example: “But there are no quick fixes to this long-term trend.”

Buildings

Yet another common rhetorical strategy in political speeches is to compare governmental processes to buildings. The idea of physically constructing a building is used to describe abstracting creating political processes. In this case, Obama describes the necessity of rebuilding our democratic institutions. In an unusual metaphor, Obama also quotes George Washington’s farewell address in which he talked about the underpinning of democratic rights. The term underpinning originally referred to the materials used to create the foundation of a building or a bridge. Metaphorically anything that supports or sustains a process or programs can be described as an underpinning.

rebuild

Example: “All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions.”

underpinning

Example: “In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but ‘from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken…to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.’”

Journey

The final set of metaphors worth mentioning is that of a journey. Readers of this blog are well aware that journey metaphors are almost ubiquitous in political speeches since the speaker rhetorically wants to demonstrate to the audience that he or she is making progress towards goals that will be of benefit to them as if proceeding on a grand journey. Journey metaphors can be quite complex, and Obama uses a wide variety of them in his speech. In one case, one can describe a process as if people are walking along a road. One can meet people along the way, or approach a destination. Thus metaphorically, we can say that one can approach a problem or meet a challenge. In another case, people travelling as a group must be careful not to leave anyone behind when they take off. Metaphorically people can be left behind economically if they do not have living wage jobs. We can also talk about the speed at which one travels. Thus we can talk about the pace of an ongoing process as if it is a vehicle travelling down the road. And of course, one does not want to go in reverse when trying to reach a destination. But we can also speak of reversing a bad trend to make things better for the American people.  More commonly, we talk about achieving a goal as if we are taking steps along a path. Obama shares his frustration of not achieving as much as he wanted to by describing it as taking two steps forward and one step back, even though he claims that the country is still going in a forward motion. Captains of ships set a course when they set sail towards a new destination. Thus, we can talk about a journey as a long course of action. Finally, Obama uses a colorful phrase derived from an essay from Ralph Waldo Emerson, that of hitching one’s wagon to a star to achieve great things in life. Obama encourages young Americans to hitch their wagon to something bigger than themselves.

approach

Example: “Now, we can and should argue about the best approach to solve the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations, it betrays the essential spirit of this country — the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders.”

meet

Example: “We have everything we need to meet those challenges.”

left behind

Example: “While the top one percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and in rural counties, have been left behind…”

pace

Example: “It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.”

reverse

Example: “If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession…”

steps/forward motion

Example: “For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some.”

course

Example: “Over the course of these eight years, I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates and our newest military officers.”

journey

Example: “America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.”

hitch your wagon

Example: “Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans, it has inspired so many Americans — especially so many young people out there — to believe that you can make a difference — (applause) — to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.”

*******

Barack Obama’s farewell address was a poignant description of his past accomplishments and his hopes for the future. While not deliberately grandiose with few rhetorical flourishes, the speech succeeded in pleasing his supporters in reminding them of his successes as the 44th president. As I hopefully have described here, the speech also contained a wide variety of political metaphors that illustrate how we conceptualize political processes. I look forward to analyzing the speeches of Donald Trump as he takes office this week.

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