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Analysis of President Obama's 2012 DNC Speech

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The 2012 Presidential Election was a hard-fought battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Although Obama was able to salvage victory fairly easily in the final stages of the campaign, he did so in part because of his incredible skills as an orator and inspirational figure. This sample politics paper explores the success of President Obama's 2012 DNC speech.

President Obama’s 2012 DNC speech

As President of the United States, both candidate and elect, Barack Obama has shown time and again that he is a remarkable public speaker. His addresses have been noted by members of all parties for their passion and persuasive power. The 2012 Democratic National Convention was another opportunity for the President to continue this trend, and he did so with his official nomination acceptance.

Though some would say that President Bill Clinton’s speech overshadowed that of President Obama, the significance of President Obama’s speech as an indication of the incumbent’s platform and response to his competitor makes it well worth examining for its persuasive tactics. President Obama’s speech is an example of several different persuasive theories and it applies them effectively across the spectrum.

The four primary theories that can be seen most clearly in President Obama’s DNC speech are:

  • Cognitive Dissonance Theory
  • Elaboration Likelihood Model
  • Problematic Integration Theory
  • Symbolic Convergence Theory

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive Dissonance Theory is applicable to some of the earliest comments in President Obama’s speech. He acknowledges the myriad troubles (like the negative side of Obamacare) that had likely compromised the confidence of voters:

“Hope has been tested – by the cost of war; by one of the worst economic crises in history; and by political gridlock that’s left us wondering whether it’s still possible to tackle the challenges of our time” (Obama, 2012).

With all these problems during the Obama Administration, it would be naïve of President Obama to pretend that the voters are not nervous. Acting like everything is fine when it obviously isn’t would create significant dissonance that would push voters away from the claims that ring false in the face of evidence.

President Obama continues to respond to the concerns of Cognitive Dissonance Theory throughout his speech. With the recent speech by Senator and Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney laying many accusations at the feet of the Obama Administration, the burden was placed on President Obama to explain away what appeared to be evidence that his presidency has done more harm than good. He addressed these with simple facts over the course of his 40-minute speech. For example, he covered job growth and education reform:

“After a decade of decline, this country created over half a million manufacturing jobs in the last 2½ years” and “For the first time in a generation, nearly every state has answered our call to raise their standards of teaching and learning” (Obama, 2012) among many others.

The use of facts is a very effective method of soothing cognitive dissonance. After hearing so much factual support, it would be much easier for voters to place their confidence in a president that delivered so many positive things in the face of so much adversity.

The Elaboration Likelihood Model and Symbolic Convergence Theory

Both the Elaboration Likelihood Model and Symbolic Convergence Theory can be seen in action as the president makes an effort to connect with the audience in his speech. The same facts that served to calm any cognitive dissonance the crowd may have been experiencing also provided an opportunity to proactively persuade them the central route component of the ELM. Ideal central route persuasion requires that the proposal are delivered in terms that can be easily understood and that the audience are presented with a motivation to process the information. The President does this with double-edged presentations of both facts and ambitions such as:

“I’ve cut taxes for those who need it – middle-class families and small businesses. But I don’t believe that another round of tax breaks for millionaires will bring good jobs to our shores, or pay down our deficit” (Obama, 2012).

First, he presents pleasing facts that soothe dissonance and then he motivates the audience to think about what those facts represent by presenting a related hope, more jobs and reduced deficit in this specific case.

The previously cited quote about improving education (like the Raise Your Hand initiative) for the first time in a generation is another example. It is an encouraging fact and he capitalizes on it by motivating the audience to take that information and consider their choices:

“Now you have a choice. We can gut education, or we can decide that in the United States of America, no child should have her dreams deferred because of a crowded classroom or a crumbling school” (Obama, 2012).

These examples and the others like them also indicate a degree of peripheral route processing. The second component of each example that motivates the audience to process the facts also presents an inarguable position, giving the speaker significant credibility. Since nobody would say that reducing the deficit or improving schools is a bad thing, the president’s challenges are more persuasive.

Symbolic Convergence Theory

Symbolic Convergence Theory plays into these examples of peripheral route processing as well. It can be seen more clearly when the president makes points that rely less on facts and more on an appeal to certain groups. He identifies strongly with the military when he sincerely and passionately commends them:

“Tonight we pay tribute to the Americans who still serve in harm’s way. We are forever in debt to a generation whose sacrifice has made this country safer and more respected” (Obama, 2012).

In this case, his claim and the subsequent promises to continue supporting the military both in the budget and on a more personal level do not rely on facts. Instead, the president employs Symbolic Convergence Theory to align himself with anyone else who supports United States military personnel and veteran rights in America and wants the government to honor and care for them. Like the previous examples, very few people would want to be on the outside of that little club, making it a very effective connection between the president and his audience.

President Obama repeats this persuasive tactic almost exactly with the elderly. His attention to the Medicare issue is not one supported by facts, but by empathy:

“No American should ever have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies. They should retire with the care and the dignity they have earned” (Obama, 2012).

This tactic both endears him to the elderly voters and suggests that he is committed to protecting the programs that support elderly Americans. It is difficult for a listener to disconnect one part from the other, making this another effective application of Symbolic Convergence Theory.

A positive speech won people over

One of the key persuasive concerns of any political candidate is Problematic Integration Theory. Convincing constituents that policy promises are both likely and worthwhile is, in a perfect world, the only thing candidates would concern themselves with. While President Obama does take several jabs at Senator Romney in his DNC speech, he also devotes a considerable amount of time discussing his platform and persuading the audience that his platform will be successful and beneficial. The examples already given for other persuasive theories hold through as examples of effective application of Problematic Integration Theory.

Numerous times, President Obama provided facts to indicate that his administration is capable of doing what it claimed, including job growth and education improvements, and he immediately followed each example with an argument for why continued pursuit of these goals is a good things. Some are obvious, like reducing the deficit, and some required more explanation, like how improved education will help train Americans to do the jobs that the government and private sector are working so hard to create and thus strengthen the domestic economy (Obama, 2012). Virtually the entire speech is one example after another of effective persuasion in terms of Problematic Integration Theory, as well as the others.

The public speaking expertise of President Obama is evident in his charisma. His mastery of persuasive tactics is even more evident when his speeches are in text, form, however, and can be examined and broken down. The close study of these various components makes it possible to take each specific example and compare it to the others and to the applicable persuasive theories. Through this kind of examination, it is clear that this particular example is extremely effective persuasion.

Reference

Obama, B. (2012, September 6). Transcript: President Obama's Convention Speech. NPR. Retrieved October 8, 2012, from http://www.npr.org/2012/09/06/160713941/transcript-president-obamas-convention-speech

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