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Communications and Media

Rhetorical analysis of President Obama’s speech at Sandy Hook School.

Introduction

President Obama in his speech with regard to the tragedy that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School at Newtown Connecticut tried to lift the spirits and hearts of those who lost their dear ones. With his remarks and solace he tried to provide a brief relief to the families and people of Newtown. He stood with the families of victims and people of Newtown by stating that “You are not alone in your grief”. He challenged the audience to gather as one nation for ensuring the safety of each child. For achieving his purpose through out the speech the President used various rhetorical devices like word diction, images, humor, repetition, logos, pathos and egos. This paper analyses the speech of the President Obama on the basis of Lloyd Bitzer’s rhetorical situation.

Exigence

On hearing about the incident parents of almost all America was afraid about the life of their children and the students of Sandy Hook Elementary School didn’t knew what to do and think. All they knew was that it is high time for any change to take place. President Obama through his speech set out the message that the incident that took the life of 20 children between 6 and seven years of age and seven adults is the most affected event after his occupation of office. He stated that the incident has struck his heart very close, as a leader and as a father, and he is most worried about the safety of the children of his country.

President Obama through his speech gave a message to the whole world that the people need to come together as a nation to ensure the safety of children. He se out the message that it is not only the people of Newtown that is affected, but the whole country through his words that, “All across this land our world too has been torn apart. All across this land we wept with you and pulled our children tight. Newtown, you are not alone” (TheTelegraph). With these words he was able to make every one feel warm. He also wanted the people to understand that he actually cares for them and same is with the whole world. Through out his speech he was able to connect with the audience.

It is by using pathos and repetition that President Obama communicates his message with audience. He is not only communicating with the people of Newtown, but also with the entire citizens of United States of America by saying that, “This is our first task — caring for our children.  It’s our first job.  If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.  That’s how, as a society, we will be judged” (Marin). These words of President were very emotional and at the same time so powerful that it made the people feel the need for unity to protect their children. He further strengthens this feel by challenging people to come together and take responsibility which is in reality his intention.

President has done his role of consoler in an extremely skillful manner. He made his message empathetic, personal and powerful enough to uplift the whole nation at once. For making the speech empathetic and personal he has expressed his concern as a father and not only as a leader. Along with that he has mentioned the emotions of parents that is universal in nature. To console people he said “I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts. I can only hope that it helps for you to know, that you’re not alone in your grief. That our world, too, has been torn apart” (Stein and Wilkie). To make his speech powerful President quoted the words of Bible that “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven not built by human hands” (Stein and Wilkie) which is really moving. This he did in the beginning of speech itself and this helped him to connect with people very powerfully and effectively.

To connect with the people of Newtown more effectively he praised all those who were present at the site of massacre during the incident for their support and presence of mind. He further praised the staff and students of school and their families stating that their act of sacrifice and strength has inspired him and the whole nation. In his speech he also talked about the school and said that the children has lost their lives in a school and that it could have been any school in a quiet town where all the people are all decent and good and this could have been in any place in America. Through this statement he is further trying to console the people and school authorities by implying that it is not their fault that resulted in such a grave massacre.

He said that he knew that the staff of the school did not recoil when the incident took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School’s halls. It was so proudly that he said that “they did not hesitate” (WashingtonPostStaff). He said how proud he feels for those teachers who were courageous enough to protect their children and how happy he feels for their love towards those children. He speaks a lot about the staff and children of school, especially the teachers and the way he is feeling their pain. He was really proud when he said that “we know that there were other teachers who barricaded themselves inside classrooms and kept steady through it all and reassured their students by saying, “Wait for the good guys, they are coming. Show me your smile” (Marin) Children of school are also praised for their help and support to each other, for holding themselves together by doing their duty of following the instructions that their teachers gave. President feels so proud for the behaviour of those children who didn’t panic and were brave enough to comfort and protect each other by remaining calm and obedient during a shocking incident inside their school halls. Heroism and spirit of children and teachers who survived the incident was praised by the President by quoting the words of a child “I know karate, so it’s OK. I’ll lead the way out,” (TheTelegraph) that the child said as a reassurance to one grown up person. By quoting this sentence President Obama managed to spread some levity among his audience.

During his speech the President also spoke about the adults who were killed. Calling the names of adults who were killed Dawn Hocksprung, Lauren Russeau, Vicki Soto, Rachel Davino, Mary Sherlach and Anne Marie Murphy the President praised their act as heroic. He states that their effort to save the life of children had resulted in losing of life during the incident.

Audience

President Obama is quiet aware of the situation and keeping in mind the fact that it is his second term he said that “Since I’ve been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by a mass shooting.  The fourth time we’ve hugged survivors.  The fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims.  And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and big cities all across America — victims whose — much of the time, their only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time” (WashingtonPostStaff) He made use of ethos to address his audience. With the above statement the President showed some credibility and authority to deliver his speech to the people of Newtown and United States as whole in a good manner. The President made use of ethos in his speech to convey to the audience that he has faced similar situations in his period and now it is time for such incidents to end. This method can be viewed as his effort to achieve the purpose of bringing some change.

Through his speech at Newtown the President decided to talk not to those who were affected by the incident but also to the whole nation. He wanted to convey the message that a change is inevitable and for that people of United States has to stay together. For conveying his message President took an artful turn from the way he was speaking about previous incidents and talked about the people of Newtown. He said that they have inspired the whole nation with their care and concern for one another. Their love for each other is an inspiration for whole United States. To make his message clear and to reach out to his audience he then talked about the responsibilities of parenthood. He said that if you are a parent it is “like having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around” (Stein and Wilkie) He then said that it is not only for the parents to take the responsibility of a child but it is for the whole nation to ensure the safety of children. He said that responsibility of children are on every person for “we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours” (Marin). It was through this sense of collective responsibility that he paved the base line for conveying his policy. On laying this ground work he described the policy that he wanted to reveal to the nation and for that he said about the obligation of people of America to take care of children and adults and to ensure their safety.

He further stated his stand that “We’re not doing enough, and we will have to change.” He said encouraged the citizens by stating that “Surely we can do better than this” (Npr). Though he assured that we can do better than today he didn’t mention any policy formation or change clearly as it was likely to be harmful to him politically. If the President try to make any gun legislation with changes it will have a negative impact with the power of lobby supplying guns in America and the attitude of Americans. American’s are not at all afraid to get any lethal weapon and on the contrary they are determined to do so. So, the President merely suggested his support for renewal of ban on assault weapons for preventing people from buying such weapons. This will certainly prevent ordinary citizens from buying weapons like Bushmaster .223 semi-automatic rifle which is military style and was used for shooting children at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

His words like laying foundation for some changes in the legislation which is of great importance on the background of four similar incidents that took place during his term. His words also can be considered as an effort to enforce gun laws that exist at present in a more effective manner. If the President is able to achieve this aim, America will become safer for people to live in peace and harmony. They will be able to send their children to school with out any fear for a bad incident. But it is not an easy task to impose or even draft a legislation that is capable enough to restrain a mentally disturbed person who has access to weapons legally from committing similar incident.

Question of mental health is an important aspect and laws and legislations have nothing to do with this. This might be one of the reasons why the President was not mentioning about any legislation or legal changes he will adopt. Further occasion of his speech was not a good stage to mention any legislative changes or legal things which was likely to have political impacts. President in a way refrained from politicizing his speech. All he intended was to assure the nation and especially the people of Newtown that he is also suffering same pain and agony as they are and is very much concerned about them. He made use of the situation to ensure the nation that he is with people and their issues are affecting him the same way as it affects an ordinary citizen. Through this speech he addressed the whole nation, people from all sects including his political rivals. He made it clear to people that he is with them at all stages of life.

Constraints

Obama throughout his speech tried to connect with people of Newtown and the whole nation. He tried in every way possible not to politicize his speech and just to inform people that he is very much concerned about them. He was not even mentioning about any legislations or laws that he is going to pass for preventing any future incident (Marcius, Friedman and Beekman). One of the reasons is that the act was not the result of any legal flaws. But it was an issue of mental health for which policy changes or legislations have nothing to do with. Though he mentioned about renewal of ban on assault weapons he didn’t spent much time on the aspect of policy changes or passing of new laws. Another reason that restrained the President from speaking on policies is that he didn’t wish to make any political comments under such a situation. It was not an occasion to talk politics and any policy changes will not be capable enough to abstain from acting under mental distress.

Question of mental health is really a thorny one. Though there are several mental health services available, it is not necessary for such services to reach all persons with mental issues. In this case the person who committed this brutal act was young and was from a financially sound family. His mother was devoted to take care of him for which she was staying at home to make his life tolerable. He was also given home schooling in an attempt to make his life better. It cannot be expected from a man of such a situation to act like this and take necessary measures to prevent such an act.

Still the President was committed to help his people by doing some thing and this is revealed through his words “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” (TheTelegraph). These words are the most powerful lines in his speech though they sound very simple. Here President Obama has made use of logos to deliver his message.

He has made use of appeals and device in conveying his message to people. To release tension he is also using humor which makes audience laugh a little. It is not possible to imagine that at such a situation any one can smile, but the President with his use of imagery and humor was able to spread some relief and happiness among audience than to make the event a sad and cloudy one. When he said “and then there were the scenes of the schoolchildren, helping one another, holding each other, dutifully following instructions in the way that young children sometimes do; one child even trying to encourage a grown-up by saying, “I know karate.  So it’s okay.  I’ll lead the way out” (Marin) audience actually laughed a little. He was giving the image of children who were so sweet to have lined up according to the instructions given to them soon after the massacre. He is using some logos while he describes the behaviour of children soon after the incident. President also called out the name of 20 children who died at the incident while he was about to conclude his speech (TheTelegraph). It was a simple act, but powerful enough to move the audience. This act of the President made the audience cry and there were some audible wails from audience. To confront the audience he said that he along with them needs to find strength to bear the situation. Through his words the President clearly says that he understand the affect of that incident on all the people of United States of America which includes him.

Conclusion

I am of the opinion that the President succeeded in doing a remarkable job though his speech at Newton High School. It was on the occasion of vigil and memorial service held for the victims of shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that President Obama addressed the audience. He was successful in his intentions and was able to convey his message to whole nation. He used pathos to connect with the emotions of people of Newtown and the nation. At the same time he also showed his authority and credibility by using ethos remarkably. He was also successful in using logos for reasoning his message. The President was really successful to convey his message to the people of Newtown and that of America which will make them aware of their responsibility to stay together for a change. The speech was in reality a test for the President who is in his second term as the President. He was to manage the balance between his position as consoler-in-chief and the leader who is supposed to make changes in public policy to block any similar incidents in future.

The President as a leader of nation was able to console his fellow followers on the tragedy that took place and at the same time he was really eloquent through out his speech. He carried the situation very sensibly and refrained from making any political remarks or policy proposals that was likely to create political after effects. He also stayed away from any attack from the powerful gun lobby and questions of civil liberty which is a very sensitive issue that was likely to arise from scrutiny of people who are facing mental issues. He was successful to strike the right tone that was exactly necessary at the time of a national tragedy. He was also successful to lead all the people of the nation to a conversation about the need to prevent any similar incidents in future and measures to be taken for avoiding that.

References

Marcius, Chelsia Rose, Dan Friedman and Daniel Beekman. ‘NOW IS THE TIME’: Obama, in speech near Newtown, says he’s ‘determined as ever’ to get gun bill passed. 8 April 2013. 27 April 2013. <http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/obama-determined-gun-bill-passed-article-1.1311203>.

Marin, Alex. Obama Sandy Hook Speech VIDEO: President Consoles the Nation With Vague Generalities. December 2012. 27 April 2013. <http://www.policymic.com/articles/20922/obama-sandy-hook-speech-video-president-consoles-the-nation-with-vague-generalities>.

Npr. Transcript: President Obama At Sandy Hook Prayer Vigil. 16 December 2012. 28 April 2013. <http://www.npr.org/2012/12/16/167412995/transcript-president-obama-at-sandy-hook-prayer-vigil>.

Stein, Sam and Christina Wilkie. Obama Speaks At Sandy Hook Vigil: ‘These Tragedies Must End’ (VIDEO, PHOTOS). 16 December 2012. 28 April 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/16/obama-speaks-at-sandy-hoo_n_2312869.html>.

TheTelegraph. Connecticut school shooting: Barack Obama’s Sandy Hook vigil speech in full. 17 December 2012. 27 April 2013. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/barackobama/9749559/Connecticut-school-shooting-Barack-Obamas-Sandy-Hook-vigil-speech-in-full.html>.

WashingtonPostStaff. President Obama’s speech at prayer vigil for Newtown shooting victims (Full transcript). 16 December 2012. 27 April 2013. <http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-12-16/politics/35864241_1_prayer-vigil-first-responders-newtown>.