It’s All About “You”: Audience in Barack Obama’s Back-to-School Address
I’m not sure if you caught Pres. Barack Obama’s “Back to School” speech this year. If you’re like me, you heard about it because NPR reported the shocking lack of protest—nothing like last year’s. (Last year there were oratorical fireworks, and all before Obama had said a word.)
Well, if you missed this year’s speech, I’d like to tell you that you missed the clarion call to education. That Big Bird, John Dewey and Albus Dumbledore himself couldn’t have sung out a sweeter song about school’s education and its promising promise. But you don’t want lies, no matter their shine.
So, instead, I will tell you what Obama said about his audience. Yes, about his audience—not to them. What he said to them, “work hard, play nice,” is probably apt for an audience of school kids (for one, being young people, there’s a chance this theme hasn’t got old). But it’s more interesting to follow how Obama folds in the other audiences actually listening. Since it’s not just students that heard this speech. When the president speaks, the nation listens. At least, someone does. We hear about it on the news, after all.
But to show you what I mean:
So, what I want to say to every kid, every young person — what I want all of you — if you take away one thing from my speech, I want you to take away the notion that life is precious, and part of what makes it so wonderful is its diversity, that all of us are different. And we shouldn’t be embarrassed by the things that make us different. We should be proud of them, because it’s the thing that makes us different that makes us who we are, that makes us unique. And the strength and character of this country has always come from our ability to recognize — no matter who we are, no matter where we come from, no matter what we look like, no matter what abilities we have — to recognize ourselves in each other.
This section comes at the end of the speech, but it contains audience-identifying moves that are used throughout. For example, Obama starts by speaking to an abstracted group “every kid, every young person” as though he knows there are more than just kids listening. But then he re-identifies, moving from “every kid” to “all of you” and going from the abstracted group to a general, collective you. He makes school kids the whole—or at least the significant part—of his audience.
And while that you is distinct from the “I” voice that started the section, Obama’s next move brings everyone together because in the next set of lines, he shifts from I to “us” and “we”. Suddenly the students are not an “other” Obama speaks to, but rather part of the whole, a whole Obama places himself in. (Although differences remain an other: we are “proud of them” rather than “proud of our differences”.)
There are two more shifts, made in the same breath. The audience goes from being students to being all Americans; Obama speaks of “this country” and then “our ability” and so links America to the collective first-person, our. And, while he’s transforming you from student to country-dweller, he changes from addressing present Americans to speaking of America eternal—not just now, but what “has always come”. From school kids in front of him to all Americans, past and present—and all of us recognizably one. All this, in under a minute.
Presidents start speeches “my fellow Americans,” Stephen Colbert opens with “Nation” because such naming shapes the audience. It says: ignore geography, class, politics, for now. Right now, you’re an American, someone sharing a nation, the kind of nation where the president is the first among equals; where the host’s every whim is met with Internet frenzy. Repetition hides the technique from view, but just because we expect it doesn’t mean we resist it.
The lesson, dear reader, is that stock phrases suggest to the audience who it is—so do pronouns. Listen to Obama’s speech and you are the student, the school, the America he believes in—successfully competing with the world while cooperating with itself. Or you’re not; and you’re annoyed, because he’s left you out of the speech, the school, the promised land of work hard, play nice.
If you want to know more:
- Vanessa Beasley literally wrote a book on presidential pronoun usage: “You, the People: American National Identity in Presidential Rhetoric”
- An older but classic treatment of audience identity can be found in Michael Calvin McGee’s 1975 article “In Search of ‘The People’: A Rhetorical Alternative”
- Transcript and video of the speech can be found here.
- NPR story coverage can be heard here.