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Language in Politics

Seminararbeit 2011 34 Seiten

Anglistik - Linguistik


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Language in Politics
2.1 Historical background
2.2 Linguistic Analysis of Political Language
2.2.1 President Bush’s speech from Sarasota, Florida
2.2.2 President Bush’s speech from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana
2.2.3 President Bush’s address to the nation
2.2.4 President Bush’s speech from U.S. Capitol, Washington D.C.
2.2.5 President Obama’s speech concerning the death of bin Laden

3. Conclusion



1. Introduction

“Presidential power is the power to persuade.“ (Neustadt 1980, 10) This is a sentence I came across during my research for this term paper. Even if the statement can be proved by many historical examples, like e.g. the Nazism, it does not explain how the persuasiveness of words works and can be achieved. How can words be used to persuade the audience and therefore be used in a supportive sense for the interests of the speaker? To what extend can political language be seductive and how can a speaker use language to seduce its audience or from the other perspective how can the audience be aware of the real intentions behind such a seductive speech?

Within the frame of this term paper I will try to answer these questions by following the structure as outlined beyond.

First of all I will give a brief overview about the political circumstances that lead to the speeches, I chose to analyze within this term paper.

Then I will go on with the specific analysis of these speeches, namely four speeches by President Bush and one by President Obama. If not indicated in another way, the footnotes contain short abstracts from the particular speech, in order to help the reader find the passages of interest more quickly and easily. The choice to analyze four speeches of President Bush arose out of the fact there a certain development from the first to the last speech. This is contributed by the fact that his first speeches are not that as well formulated as the last speech I chose, because of a lack of time for the first ones. Another pro-argument for the selection of four different speeches concerning the same topic is that it shows a more complete picture of the language’s possibility to persuade than just analyzing one speech. I won’t mention any detail, but rather try to show a wide range of possible instruments, the speakers or rather their speechwriters made use of. The most interesting question referring to these speeches is how Bush was able to accomplish his main goal – to build up a consensus around the war against terrorism – by simply systemically using language (= rhetoric). In order to examine how language contributed to the achievement of Bush’s goal, I will have to find out, how the different aspects of language, like style, vocabulary, rhetorical devices, are taken into service (cf. Silberstein 2002, 1).

As a fifth speech I will analyze Obama’s speech concerning the death of Osama bin Laden, because there again are some distinct features observable since there is another speaker/speechwriter. To complete this, I will try to reveal some connections between Bush’s speeches concerning 9/11 and Obama’s speech.

Finally, a conclusion will be drawn to answer finally the questions I listed above.

2. Language in politics

2.1 Historical background

George W. Bush was elected president of the U.S.A. on November, 7th 2000 – almost one year later, he came face-to-face with the fact, that the U.S. got under attack on September 11th, 2001. Two airplanes, hijacked by Islamist terrorists of the Al-Qaeda-Organisation, crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, while another one crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth airplane – probably with another attack target in Washington, D.C. – crashed near Shanksville / Pennsylvania, because the hijackers were involved in a fight with passengers. More than 3000 people died. President Bush delivered a television address the same evening, in which he tried to confirm the ability and determination of the government to react on these “acts of terror”. He appealed to the international community of states, to form an alliance against terrorism. This was the first time, the NATO invoked the mutual defence guarantee. With a range of confederates the U.S.A. conducted a military strike against Afghanistan whose Taliban-regime was in close contact to Al Qaeda. In the course of the “war against terrorism”, Bush commanded a charge against Iraq, whose dictator Saddam Hussein was suspected of possessing weapons of mass destruction. Since this attack was made without the authorization of the United Nations, Bush was severely criticized by some of the allied governments.

Barack Obama, who was elected president in 2008, pursued his forerunner’s goal to track down the leader of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden. On May 1st, 2011 this operation was finally successful, when a special unit, the Navy SEALs, detected, defeated and killed Osama bin Laden in an up to that point secret operation in Abbottabat, Pakistan. Bin Laden was shot in the head after resisting the attack as officials stated. His body was placed into the North Arabian Sea, immediately after he was identifies as Osama bin Laden. According to Obama’s speech declaring the death of the world’s most wanted terrorist the Pakistan government appeared cooperative in locating Osama bin Laden, but nevertheless it is questionable why the most wanted terrorist could hide only a one-hour drive from the Pakistan capital Islamabad.

2.2 Linguistic Analysis of Political Language

2.2.1 President Bush, Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida

The initial situation from which I will start to analyze political language in the further course of events is – as already mentioned – the attack on the financial and trading heart of America, the World Trade Center, on September 11th, 2001.

Forty-five minutes after the first plane hit (9.30 a.m. EDT), President Bush shortly confirmed the latest events from Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. The speech is not very well formulated, since there was not much time to prepare it. Nonetheless, there is a first contrasting theme visible: “an apparent terrorist attack on our country” or “Terrorism against our country will not stand”. On the one hand there are the Terrorists, whose identity remains uncertain for the time being, and on the other hand there are the Americans, who are referred to as “we”[1] and with the possessive pronoun “our”[2]. Thus the events are grasped as an attack not just against New York or the World Trade Center, but rather as an attack against America itself and its citizens. In this way, Bush recreates the nation or in other words, he awakes the national spirit of the Americans.

Bush himself is marked as an “active agent” (Silberstein 2002, 3), which shows that he is in charge to do whatever is necessary to protect the Americans and their country. The will to do whatever is possible is also expressed through the two-time use of the adjective “full”[3].

The speaker Bush is construed both as person of authority – he places himself outside of the community due to the use of the pronoun “I”[4], which expresses that only he is in charge to command the next (military) steps – and at the same time as an American citizen, or in other words as ‘one of them’, by using the colloquial term “folks”[5], which in this case refers to the terrorists. Thus he shows both an outstanding presidential position and a down-to-earth position, which assures the people of his ability to react on the attacks and furthermore that he is one of the nation and therefore understands its fears.

Following the idea of a recreated national spirit, the President ends his remarks with a short prayer: “May God bless the victims, their families, and America. Thank you very much.”. This has got the function of moving America right under the protection of God the Almighty (cf. Silberstein 2002, 4) and – as explained on basis of the following speeches – to address the deep inherent religious faith of all Americans.

2.2.2 President Bush, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana

The second speech that day, made on Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, is very similar to the first one from Emma Booker Elementary School. Bush once more contrasts “America”, “the American people”, “our great nation” and “The United States” strongly with “those responsible for these cowardly acts”[6]. He assures the people that everything possible will be set in motion “to save lives and help the victims” by using adjectives, that express superlatives like e.g. “high alert status”, “all appropriate security precautions” and “full resources of the federal government”. When he corrects himself by saying “whatever is” instead of “what is”[7], the climactic effect is even greater.

For the first time, he involves another entity beyond America and the terrorists, namely “world leaders”. He says that he is in touch with them and assures them that he and his co-operators (= “we”) are in control.

One might read several sentences as a first indication of the governments’ wish to repay the attacks of 9/11, like e.g. “The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.” or “[…] we will do whatever is necessary to protect America and Americans.” The word “whatever” in this context indicates the intensity of the action (expressed by the verb “do”) and since the term is very vague one might see it as a first predictor of the upcoming American war plans.

Bush once again places himself in an outstanding and at once in a down-to-earth position by using the same strategy as in his speech before. He first shows that he is in control of the situation (outstanding presidential position) and then he once again uses the colloquial term “folks”[8] (down-to-earth position), yet in another context, because this time the term refers to the brave Americans and not to the terrorists. This is a rather accidental use of the same term (“folks”) referring to different entities (Americans vs. terrorists), which are meant to be clearly separated and even contrasted.

Another problem concerning the persuasive power of this speech is that he uses two times the phrase “make no mistake”. By saying that, he kind of presupposes that the listeners are going to make a mistake, which doesn’t bind the listeners to the speaker.

He ends the speech, like in the previous, with a religious note: First he encourages the people to join him in a prayer for the victims and their families, and then he finally ends with “God bless”.

2.2.3 President Bush, Address to the Nation

The same day at 8.30 p.m. EDT, President Bush comments on the attacks and declares the “war against terrorism”[9] in a five-minute TV-speech addressed to the nation.

This speech is the first one, which is really elaborated and avails itself by the systemic use of language. Thus it puts itself forward for being analyzed below.

The speech starts with the following sentence: “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.” Our focus of interest is firstly on how language is used to describe what happened and who the participants are (both those who do something and those affected by what is done). In this example one can figure out that “deliberate and deadly terrorist acts” happened and that “our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom” were affected by these acts and that “terrorist[s]” are responsible for the attacks. Noteworthy for the element, which describes the participants, is that the attack target is no longer just the World Trade Center, but described as “our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom”. The triad involves the following aspects. First of all, it is constructed as an asyndeton, which means that it is a sequence of clauses without any conjunction. The effect of this rhetorical device is a strengthening of the intended meaning. In this case it serves as a reinforcement of the cruelty of the attacks (various aspects are touched by the acts) by having a proportion of 3:1 (our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom : terrorist acts). Furthermore, it is kind of a climax, starting from the obvious (individual) victims, up to the abstract and therefore widely accepted concept of freedom. Thus it approaches firstly the relatives of the victims, and secondly every American, which identifies himself/herself with the American way of life and freedom. “Freedom”, as a word of a highly moral demand, is the central aspect, on which Bush continues to build up the nation in the further course of events. It is the main principle of America, retraceable up to the founding and formulated as a fundamental right in the Declaration of Independence[10], and therefore its function is to generate agreement within society, by appealing to sentiments (cf. Stüwe / Stüwe 2005, 174). Bush even goes further, when he says, that America is “the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world”. The superlative of bright, in connection with the alliteration and metaphor “brightest beacon” functions to be persuasive and catchy. In the last sentence he even expands his will to defend the American freedom in saying that they want to defend “all that is good and just in our world”.

Bush mentions exemplarily roles of the victims of 9/11: “The victims were in airplanes, or in their offices; secretaries, businessmen and women, military and federal workers; moms and dads, friends and neighbors.” The order – similar again to a climax – is chosen deliberately: He starts with people, who one might have seen, but doesn’t know very well and then he goes on with moms and dads, friends and neighbors, people nearly every American can identify oneself with. It functions to make all Americans empathize with the people concerned by appealing to emotions and to prepare a consensus around (the upcoming) war.

The antithetic aspects are further broadened in this speech and will – by the way – maintain throughout the war: “Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature. And we responded with the best of America -- with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.” Noteworthy in this case is also the play of the words “daring” and “caring”, which is notwithstanding only phonologically catchy. The function of the contrastive pairs, contained in this sentence, is best explained by the following: “One aspect of this nation-building rhetoric is convergence by divergence. Americans are brought together through their contrast with a shared enemy.” (Silberstein 2002, 7) The reason for the persuasive success of these contrastive elements is not just a linguistic one, but also one of cultural context: First and foremost, we have to take the different cultural traces, deeply rooted in American society, into consideration: A nation is a conglomerate of different beliefs, which altogether determine the nation, but if you look at them individually you may see how diverse and sometimes even contrary they are. Since the founding, there occur e.g. both deep tolerance (à Declaration of Independence) and racism (against the black population) side by side. The advantage and simultaneously the danger of public rhetoric – in respect of the seduction by language – is that it uses these different views “to (re)create a national perspective around notions that – because of their cultural resonance – are widely experienced as ‘common sense’. In case of the War on Terrorism, xenophobia could be used to create an intolerant “other” who supported attacks on [the American] secular democracy.” (Silberstein 2002, xiii) Beyond that, tolerance is one crucial element that determines American society retraceable up to the Declaration of Independence from the ‘intolerant’ colonial ruler. In this manner, through presidential (war) rhetoric these different and at times opposed cultural traces are taken into service for supporting the aims of the speaker, in this case to revive the national consciousness and in order to legitimate the war against terrorism. Equally important is that Bush does not declare only the terrorists to be enemies of the U.S., but includes states that host them[11].

In this speech the first direct reference to war becomes obvious and includes the help of friends and allies, whose mentioning has once again a supporting function – if friends and allies are willing to conduct a war, Americans have to be willing more than ever: “America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism.”

He encourages all Americans to join him in a prayer: “Psalm 23: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.” The pronoun “I” in this case might refer to every individual American or in other words it kind of individualizes the suffering of the mourners by the use of the first person singular pronoun, since everyone speaks the prayer on his or her own and thus this Psalm leaves room for every individual fate, which is really important to show that nothing is comparable to the own loss of a beloved friend, caring mother etc. Through speaking the prayer simultaneously all Americans again stand together as one. On the other hand it shows, that Bush as well as other Americans “walks through the valley of the shadow of death”, but finds his hope in God, the Almighty[12], as probably many Americans did after 9/11. Here he puts himself once again in a down-to-earth position. “Evil”, since it was mentioned by Bush before in association with the terrorists, can be easily put in connection here with them: Bush and the Americans don’t fear “evil” (= the terrorists). He once again draws a monochrome worldview, putting America once again under the protection of God[13] and subconsciously linking evil with the terrorists. Thus the Psalm underlines the antithetical worldview, Bush tries to conceive during his last speeches and throughout the upcoming war, and therefore serves as a proof for the justness of his presented world picture and to eliminate all doubts. To win God over has always been a certain instrument to prevent all kinds of critique, like for instance the divine government of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France.

He closes as usual with the religious appeal “God bless America”. This closing appeal and the priorily mentioned Psalm 23 serve as a mass psychological instrument. According to surveys, two thirds of the American population would entitle religion as ‘very important’ in their lives and almost three quarters would like the president to have a strong belief in God himself (cf. Stüwe / Stüwe 2005, 165).

2.2.4 President Bush, Address to a joint session of Congress and the American People,

United States Capitol, Washington, D.C.

The speech, I decided to analyze next, was given on September 20th, 2001 at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. It was addressed to a joint session of Congress and the nation. It is worth to be dealt with, because the style of this speech is far more pedagogical and therefore realistic (cf. Silberstein 2002, 11) than in the speeches I analyzed before and, since there was some time between the 9/11 attacks and this speech, it is even more elaborated.

After addressing “Mr. Speaker, Mr. President Tempore, members of Congress, and fellow Americans”, Bush starts with the following sentence: “In the normal course of events, Presidents come to this chamber to report on the state of Union. Tonight, no such report is needed. It has already been delivered by the American people.” This state of Union is then further described and proved by an anaphoric (anaphoric start of record: “We’ve seen …”) numeration of the laudable reactions to the attacks on side of the Americans.[14]

Then he introduces, as a kind of token, a wife of a victim[15], named Todd Beamer who was one of the passengers of flight 93 and “rushed terrorists to save others on the ground”. Throughout the speech, he welcomes and refers again and again to such ‘heroes’, who always serve as token for the cruelty of the attacks and for the great behaviour and moral values of all Americans and therefore are used to support the speech and not to allow any criticism. These heroes, namely the wife of Todd Beamer, the Premier Minister of Great Britain Tony Blair[16], and the Mayor and the Governor of New York[17], are a living piece of evidence for the brave, altruistic behaviour of Americans and for the alliance with other countries. By the way it is remarkable that Bush says that America has no truer friend than Great Britain and welcomes Tony Blair as his “friend”, especially because America is originally defined by its distinct beliefs (cf. Declaration of Independence) and Bush keeps referring back to those principle of freedom, religious liberty etc.

He reassures the nation of the will to let justice prevail: “Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.” The chiasm in this case has a phonologically intensifying effect, because both sentences express the same: “We” keeps in charge, no matter how the goal is achieved (expressed through the chiasm) and “we” conducts action expressed through the verb “bring”. The success of this action is certain (this is why the chiasm expresses two times the same): “Justice will be done.” Barack Obama will pick up this sentence in his speech concerning the death of Osama bin Laden, nearly 10 years later.

As regards the countries or groups described, one might observe a division into three main groups: America/the Americans, the rest of the world and the terrorists.

America, the first nation referred to, is once again depicted as a joined nation under God, which remains strong or even gets stronger through this catastrophe: “My fellow citizens, for the last nine days, the entire world has seen for itself the state of our Union -- and it is strong.”

Bush thanks many people, who altruistically tried to save lives or helped in other ways, and it seems as if he tries to outline this courage as a special American virtue.

The pro-forms like “we”, “us” and “our” are frequently used to address all Americans and to unify them in these pro-forms. It also generates cohesion, namely syntactical connection, of a text. More specifically one can determine it as a situational deixis, because the pro-forms get their specific meaning through the direct textual context, they occur in. E.g. “we” can refer to all Americans[18] or just to Bush and his co-operators[19]. In cases, when the form “we” stands for all Americans, like e.g. “Tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom” the noticeable function is to show how the common experience, in this case the attacks of 9/11, welds president and people together.

“Tonight, we face new and sudden national challenges. We will come together to improve air safety, to dramatically expand the number of air marshals on domestic flights, and take new measures to prevent hijacking. We will come together to promote stability and keep our airlines flying, with direct assistance during this emergency. We will come together to give law enforcement the additional tools it needs to track down terror here at home. We will come together to strengthen our intelligence capabilities to know the plans of terrorists before they act, and to find them before they strike. We will come together to take active steps that strengthen America's economy, and put our people back to work.“

In this case the use of the second person plural pronoun “we” suggests that Bush works together with other persons in charge in order to improve security etc. The advantage of this pronoun in this special case it shows, that Bush isn’t responsible alone for security gaps in air traffic for instance, but that he rather shares this responsibility.

The second group, Bush keeps referring to throughout his speech, is the rest of the world. First he again thanks many countries that appeared solidly united with the U.S.A., condoled and offered their support. These countries providing international support are mentioned to underline reason and moderateness and not to leave any room for criticism. If the “civilized world”[20] is on the American side, it is far more difficult for dissenters to criticize the American policy. The rest of the world is directed to decide on which side they will stand: shoulder on shoulder with the Americans or on side of the terrorists[21]. Those who would be on side of the terrorists are therefore automatically the uncivilized part of the world, because those, who are with America are referred to as “civilized“. This also contributes to the demonization of the enemy. During the whole speech the role of the world leaders of other countries is strengthened: “This is not just America’s fight. And what is at stake is not just America’s freedom. This is the world’s fight. This is civilization’s fight. This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom.” This way has been already paved by Tony Blair, who had announced: “This is not a battle between the United States of America and terrorism, but between the free and democratic world and terrorism. We, therefore, here in Britain stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends.”[22]


[1] “Today, we’ve had a national tragedy.“

[2] “Terrorism against our nation will not stand.”

[3] “I have […] ordered that the full resources of the federal government go to help the victims and their families, and to con-
duct a full-scale investigation […]”

[4] “I have spoken to […] and have ordered that […]”

[5] “I have […] ordered […] to conduct a full-scale investigation to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act.”

[6] “The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.”

[7] “[…] that we will do what is -- whatever is necessary to protect America and Americans.”

[8] “I ask the American people to join me in saying a thanks for all the folks who have been fighting hard to rescue our fellow
citizens and to join me in saying a prayer for the victims and their families.”

[9] “[…] we stand together to win the war against terrorism.”

[10] Declaration of Independence: “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States”

[11] “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”

[12] “Psalm 23: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.”

[13] “I fear no evil, for You are with me”

[14] “We have seen the state of our Union in the endurance of rescuers, working past exhaustion. We’ve seen the unfurling of
flags, the lightening of candles, the giving of blood, the saying of prayers -- in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. We have
seen the decendy of a loving and giving people who have made grief of strangers their own.”

[15] “And would you please help me to welcome his wife, Lisa Beamer, here tonight.”

[16] “Once again, we are joined together in a great cause – so honored the British Prime Minister has crossed an ocean to show
his unity of purpose with America. Thank you for coming, friend.”

[17] “Tonight we welcome two leaders who embody the extraordinary spirit of all New Yorkers: Governor George Pataki, and
Mayor Rudolph Guiliani. As a symbol of America’s resolve, my administration will work with the Congress, and these
two leaders, to show the world that we will rebuild New York City.””

[18] “We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them.”

[19] “And ladies and gentlemen of the Congress, I thank you, their representatives, for what you have already done and for
what we will do together.”

[20] “The civilized world is rallying to America’s side.”

[21] “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this
day forwards, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile



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Titel: Language in Politics