Study Guide

A More Perfect Union Analysis

By Barack Obama

  • Rhetoric

    A Grab Bag of Ethos, Pathos, Logos

    Obama is nothing if not a good writer (and a good orator—dude wears many hats) so his speech was chock full of all these handy-dandy rhetorical devices.

    He made a lot of references to America, to patriotism, and to patriotic ideologies in order to help people understand that racial issues are American issues—just like health care and education and whether apple pie or strawberry shortcake is the true American dessert.

    Obama offered historical proof that the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were designed to guarantee freedom and equality. And it sounds delightful on paper…but it didn't really pan out that way in practice.

    Obama established his ethos, his authority, but using his own story to prove his point. As a young man with a white mother and a Black father, he experienced prejudice and discrimination. But he also overcame it. He held on to his belief that the United States was the best country in the world, and the only one that could have allowed a Black man to rise as a viable candidate for president. It's an American story, a tried and true example, and sharing his family tree added credibility to the point he was trying to make.

    Obama wasn't afraid to speak about racial tension, and, as a Black man in America, he is totally qualified to do so. Plus, his experiences with his white grandmother, a woman who loved him fiercely while simultaneously falling victim to the danger of Black stereotypes, were used to incite an emotional reaction (or pathos).

    Because—real talk—we all know people that have relied on the use of stereotypes. We all have weird uncles or dotty grandmothers who still rely on outdated stereotypes to make sense of the world…whether they're saying antiquated things about how women are better at cleaning the kitchen, that men are innately better drivers, or something way worse.

    But ethos and pathos weren't the only arrows in Obama's rhetorical quiver. He also used logic and reason (logos, y'all) to provide a super strong argument. He diplomatically acknowledged white frustrations regarding race relations in our country, and then went on to say that getting angry at one another is super unproductive.

    We need to figure out what is really causing all these problems, and why they've persisted for so long. No one can argue about the legacy of Jim Crow or the pitfalls of slavery, and employing that logic throughout "A More Perfect Union" gave Obama the perfect platform on which to propose his solution: we can't ignore racial inequality any longer.

    Yeah: this speech was a loud, buzzing wake-up call.

  • Structure

    Hansel and Gretel

    Obama's speech very clearly left a trail of breadcrumbs for you to follow from the beginning to the end. He contextualized his point of view with his own story, his own upbringing, and the history of racism in our country…as well as why it needs to change and how you, the average Joe/Josephine, has the power to make it happen.

    How It Breaks Down

    "Begin at the Beginning"

    Our country was founded on the idea of equality, but that "perfect union" has some chinks in its armor, and our future depends on fixing them.

    A Presidential Parable: Obama's Story

    Barack Obama, a Black man who fought stereotypes and prejudices to become the leader of the free world, even when his own community appeared to be dragging him down, represents the best parts of America.

    Rights and Wrongs of Reverend Wright

    The statements made by Obama's former pastor sent the media into a frenzy. But his comments were truthful for the likes of Reverend Wright's congregation.

    Trinity United Church of Christ

    Really, if you think about it, African-American populations are given little history of their own. Most "official" U.S. history is defined by white actions and white remembrances—except in church on Sunday mornings.

    The Black and White of Black and White

    Humans are complicated creatures, but for better or worse, that humanity is part of the American story.

    Fridays with Faulkner

    "As William Faulkner once wrote, 'The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past.'" (77)

    The White and Black of White and Black

    Racial problems have been present in this country for hundreds of years, but don't make the mistake of believing anger rests solely in the hearts of minorities.

    I'm Too Old for This

    We as a country are too advanced, too intelligent, and too experienced to allow racism and lingering prejudices to continue unchecked any longer.

    Choose to Cruise Down Brighter Avenues

    The road to a better future won't be without bumps and wayward branches and the occasional bold squirrel. But we can't slam on the brakes and stop driving, or we'll never get to our destination.

    For Ashley

    Remember, we live in a world populated by heroes of all shapes and sizes, and all it takes is one story, one connection, to bridge divides and start inspiring change.

  • Tone

    Honest

    "What I love most about politics is how genuine everyone is," said no one ever.

    We probably don't need to tell you how rare it is to listen to a speech or a debate without feeling as though you're getting the wool pulled over your eyes. Most politicians are quick to say the "right" things…which can sound super rehearsed and super canned.

    But Obama's speech was a little different.

    He didn't shy away from the dark parts of our history. He highlighted Jim Crow as being directly responsible for a lot of the lingering prejudices today, and while he touted affirmative action and other corrective measures, he also spoke about white resentment for such policies. Then, instead of insisting he would be the best president ever because he had all the solutions to fix those problems, Obama passed the baton on to the rest of us. He said change wouldn't come in a single administration, and it had to be a conscious and consistent choice.

    Obama talked about the U.S. Constitution in a way that illustrated how decidedly imperfect it was, not to infuriate patriots everywhere but to point out the work we still need to do to achieve perfection.

    Although Obama loves his country, he didn't love the faults in it, and he wasn't afraid to be honest about that in order to inspire the rest of us to act accordingly and do our part to make things better.

  • Writing Style

    Conversational

    How do we know you just rolled your eyes? Because you see conversational listed as the writing style for a political speech.

    But bear with us for a hot second.

    Obama's speech is the opposite of the shmoozy Ferris Bueller's Day Off-style drone that characterizes so many speeches by political hopefuls. Obama's skill at combining delivery and diction created a speech that felt less like a lecture and more like the start of a dialogue.

    In this particular case, that was a very conscious choice because the entire point of this speech was to encourage us to make strides toward speaking about and changing certain American realities.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The word "perfect" trips up a lot of people in their everyday lives. Because it's what we all want to be, but few of us ever really achieve it.

    The same is true of the United States, of our government and our society as a whole. We strove for perfection 200 years ago when we fought for our freedom. But we haven't quite made it there yet.

    In choosing "A More Perfect Union" as the title for his speech, Obama was reminding us of what we set out to do: create a nation where everyone has the same rights, the same access to opportunity. He was also making it very clear that it was average people who wrote our Constitution, who took off their white wigs and replaced them with stars and stripes.

    They were courageous and forward-thinking, not only in what they did to help us achieve freedom and equality, but in drafting a Constitution wherein we can continue to evolve and make changes for the better.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.

    Two hundred and twenty-one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars, statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787. (1-3)

    Democracy has always been a great big experiment. In many ways, it feels a lot like the moment in grade school when you made a baking soda volcano, and all your hard work was good for only one explosion.

    But unlike your volcano, democracy was an inspired experiment into the unknown. And, in the beginning of his speech, Obama gives us a brief history lesson to remind us of that. Average Joes, farmers and shoemakers and blacksmiths, worked together to defeat the British army, the most powerful army in the world, and that sentiment—that Americans have the power to do anything—has defined patriotism in this country ever since.

    Obama tapped into those feelings, the ones that run in our veins and make us ugly cry whenever we hear "The Star-Spangled Banner." He wanted to remind us of our values, of the things we strive to achieve—and he wanted us to remember that average Joes can still make a really big impact.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two hundred and twenty-one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins. (182-184)

    The last few lines in Obama's speech offered a crystal-clear message: we have to cross racial divides and find the things that bind us together. Doing so won't solve our problems, but it's a good place to start—start the movement, start the conversation, start making a change.

    Only then will we be on the right path toward that perfect union we've heard so much about.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    The diction—or word choice—in "A More Perfect Union" isn't particularly complicated, and in typical Renegade style, the tone is super conversational. You almost want to nod along, as if Obama was chatting with you at Starbucks while you indulged in a Frappuccino with extra whip and chocolate sauce.

    But prepare to do a bit of research as you read. Obama mentioned a number of historical figures and made some literary and Biblical references that are important to know in order to understand the overall theme of his speech.

  • Shout-Outs

    Literary and Philosophical References

    William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun; "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past" (77).

    Historical and Political References

    Great Depression (14)
    General George S. Patton (14)
    Reverend Jeremiah Wright (29)
    Geraldine Ferraro (71)
    Jim Crow (79)
    Brown v. Board of Education (80)
    American Dream (88)
    Reagan Coalition (107)
    Hillary Clinton (138)
    John McCain (138)
    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (158)

    Pop Culture References

    O.J. Simpson Trial (136)

    Biblical References

    David and Goliath (51)
    Moses and Pharaoh (51)
    Christians in the Lion's Den (51)
    Ezekiel's Field of Dry Bones (51)

    References to This Text

    Historical and Political References

    John McCain, Hardball College Tour at Villanova University, MSNBC
    Colin Powell, Good Morning America, ABC

    Pop Culture References

    Jon Stewart, "Obama Talked to Americans Like Adults," The Daily Show, March 19th, 2008

    International References

    Michael Tomasky, "Comment Is Free: Wright and Wrong," The Guardian, March 17, 2008
    Agence France-Presse (AFP), "Barack Obama's Race Speech an Online Video Hit," AFP, March 22, 2008

  • Trivia

    Obama was the first sitting president to make an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and he even talked a little bit about equality. The question is, who was truly the most important person in America on stage that day? (Source)

    Michelle Obama was originally Obama's boss at a Chicago law firm. #originalofficeromance (Source)

    If you look at the Constitution, Pennsylvania is misspelled above where everyone signed their names. Wonder who was responsible for spell check back then? (Source)

    Obama has read the entire Harry Potter series. Daniel Radcliffe thinks he would be a Gryffindor. And if Harry Potter himself says so, it must be true. (Source)