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American Presidents and the Art of Rhetoric

Mastering the art of rhetoric is important to any president. Learn more about rhetoric and American presidents in this text.


These words are important in the text:

  • rhetoric
  • orator
  • persuasive
  • inventio
  • dispositio
  • eloqutio
  • memoria
  • actio
  • kairos
  • decorum

Pre-reading activity

The following presidents knew very well how to inspire their audiences. Search for videos of these presidents giving speeches and study intonation, body language and their choice of words. What do you think made them great speakers?

  1. Franklin Delanore Roosevelt
  2. John F. Kennedy
  3. Ronald Reagan
  4. Barack Obama

In a previous article we have seen that the art of communication - rhetoric - originated from politics and public speaking in ancient Sicily and Greece. Since democratic values were and are cornerstones in the American Constitution and politics, presidential candidates that cannot speak up for their interests do not stand a chance in the race for presidency.

The Five Corner Stones of a Good Speech



According to the Roman rhetorician Cicero (106 - 43BC), a successful persuasive speech relies on the following five cornerstones: inventio (you have to come up with arguments that support your view and you have to prepare for arguments that your audience or counterpart will come up with), dispositio (you have to plan how to arrange your arguments), eloqutio (you have to adopt style), memoria (you should know your manuscript very well and make your audience remember) and actio (you should plan how to deliver your speech).
No doubt the above are the primary criteria, but we should not forget about the main principles in good rhetoric, i.e. how you can appeal to your audience by using ethos (your credibility as a speaker), pathos (your ability to stir emotions) and logos (your ability to challenge common sense and reason).

The Rhetorical Situation

Another aspect that you have to have in mind is the rhetorical situation, which is known as kairos. A speaker has to ask himself or herself: what is the context of the communication, what constraints and options do the time and place call for. Last but not least, the speaker has to consider who is the audience and decorum; what it is apt to say and how to say it in the given situation. If you had just confided a deep secret to your best friend, you would not have appreciated it if she burst out laughing!

Mass Media as a Communication Channel

A long time has passed since public speakers had to deliver their speeches in ancient Greece. Whereas those speakers often delivered their speeches from a podium in the open air in Athens and their message could only reach the crowd that was within hearing distance, public speeches today will be broadcasted and instantly reach millions of people. Mass media permit any speaker who has a lot on his mind to reach his audience. Yet, the speaker has to be familiar with the possibilities as well as the limitations of the channel chosen to convey his message.

Four Presidents - Four Outstanding Orators

The American presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama are all ranked among the world's greatest orators. Why? Certainly because they applied Cicero's five cornerstones (see above) in their speeches and their talent to perceive the rhetorical situation (kairos). Furthermore, they know how to exploit the media channels available in their contemporary time. Look at the examples below.

John F. Kennedy

Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy (1917 - 1963) also had to lead his people through hard times during his short presidency in the early 1960s. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, not only the USA, but the entire world, was on the brink of a nuclear war. On more domestic ground another battle took place - the call for Civil Rights for African Americans and the deep divide this demand caused between the North and the South. The situation was so tense that it caused the President to make an appeal to his people. This speech was delivered on television - a channel which was in its infancy in 1963. Watch the brief clip and answer the questions.


  1. What is the rhetorical situation (kairos) that called for this speech?
  2. Make a word cloud (words that are repeated, count how many times they are repeated) from this short speech. What effect do these words have?
  3. Find examples of the use of ethos, pathos and logos in the speech.
  4. This message is conveyed through the television. Which possibilites and which restrictions are implied in the television as a media channel?
  5. Do you think the President managed to move his audience? Why, or why not? Would this speech performed in the same manner (actio) work today? Why or why not?

Barack Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria

When Barack Obama entered office as the USA's 44th President on January 20, 2009, as an African American he was the first to break a chain of white Anglo-Saxon presidents and he was the first genuinely "digital" president. He used the potential of social media to its fullest in his presidential campaign and thus earned valuable votes from the young generation. On the official website http://www.whitehouse.gov/ with entries to Twitter, You Tube and Facebook, and blogs he and his staff continue to keep up the dialogue with the public. Apart from his awareness of the power of digital media, he is an outstanding orator. His Inauguration and Super Tuesday Speeches have become classical examples of good rhetoric. If you follow this link, you will find an extensive interview with You Tube's Steve Grove. In the interview you will see clips from Obama's most significant speeches. Watch 5 min. of the interview and answer the questions. Barack Obama's YouTube Interview


  1. What is the rhetorical situation (kairos) in this interview?
  2. Who is the President's audience and how do you think he handles this communication? What is the symbolic value of this You Tube interview?
  3. Is he persuasive? Does he sound convincing? Is he consistent? Do you find examples where he uses pathos? What about his crediability - ethos - is it weakened or strengthened?
  4. How do you think he has planned his actio (look at how he has dressed, his tone, his words and his body language)?
  5. Why do you think Obama is considered a good speaker?

Further Reading

Yes, We Can!

Barack Obama and Martin Luther King - Great Speakers

Sist oppdatert 26.01.2018
Skrevet av Eli M. Huseby


US History