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The Rhetorical War Presidency of Barack Obama

The Rhetorical War Presidency Of Barack Obama

Scholars of presidential rhetoric try to understand how presidents lead through speech.  The classical studies of the rhetorical presidency examine how presidents “go public,” how they use speech in influencing the public, Congress, or the courts (see e.g. Tulis, Kernell).  These studies have proven less than completely satisfying because, as George Edwards reminded us, presidential rhetoric doesn’t usually work to influence the public, and may not do much to influence other constitutional officials either.  This is but a specialized case of the more general empirical observation that rhetoric usually doesn’t work, and that its influence is usually only accidentally related to the rhetor’s intentions.

For this reason, I want to propose a complimentary research agenda to the classical rhetorical presidency approach: to look at how rhetoric shapes and expresses the presidency.  Barack Obama’s war in Afghanistan was been shaped by his rhetoric as a presidential candidate, by how he asked voters to imagine him as President faced with the 9-11 attacks in George W. Bush’s place.  Obama’s need in 2009 to give a speech that articulated his policy on the Afghanistan war against the Taliban, what would become his 1 December 2009 West Point Address, was the driving force behind the crystallization of that policy (Woodward 207, 304).

To understand the war presidency of Barack Obama is to understand how Obama the president was constrained by the war rhetoric of Obama the candidate.  In the months after September 11, George W. Bush articulated a foreign policy vision that tied America’s security to the triumph of freedom over tyranny   throughout the world, and especially throughout the Muslim world:

“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.”[1]

Barack Obama, along with many other Bush critics, took exception to this vision.  Obama did not return to the realist idea championed by such as Fareed Zakaria: that given the anti-Americanism of Arab public opinion, the United States needed to preserve Middle East despots precisely because they were insulated from that public opinion.  When Egypt’s 2010 political crisis turned revolutionary, Obama helped give Egypt’s Mubarak a shove.  Rather, Obama was skeptical about America’s ability to lead the world to a new era of progress and freedom.  To quote President Obama’s West Point address: “As a country, we’re not as young — and perhaps not as innocent — as we were when Roosevelt was President.”[2]  Obama expressed what his partisans would call a pragmatic notion of the limits of America’s capacities.  Most fundamentally, Obama expressed pragmatic doubt about the value of a policy vision for working out foreign policy in practice.[3]

To understand Obama the candidate, the most useful foreign policy text, I think, is the transcript of his “3am Ad” against Hillary Clinton when both were campaigning in 2008 for the Democratic nomination:

Narrator (voiceover):] It’s 3am, and your children are safe and asleep. 

But there’s a phone ringing in the White House.

Something’s happening in the world.

When that call gets answered, shouldn’t the President be the one, the only one, who had judgment and courage to oppose the Iraq war from the start? 

Text: “Obama showed courage opposing the Iraq war” / Austin American-Statesman 2/2/08]

Who understood the real threat to America was Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, not Iraq?

[Text: Iraq distracted us from the “real threat” in Afghanistan / Barack Obama 10/2/07]

Who led the effort to secure loose nuclear weapons around the globe?

[Text: “Obama joins Lugar to curb nuclear weapons” / Copley News Service 11/1/05]

In a dangerous world, it’s judgment that matters.

[Text: Barack Obama.  President. / Vote Tuesday


Approved by Barack Obama Paid for by Obama for America]

[Barack Obama (voiceover):]  I’m Barack Obama, and I approve this message.[4]

One can see why vision wouldn’t matter, because it is not vision, but “judgment that counts.”  But even if judgment is not put forward with a distinctive grand strategic vision, it will have to be expressed in distinctive particular policies.

Barack Obama came to prominence, we all know, as one of the few members of the American political class to oppose the war on Iraq — as his advertisement against Hillary stated: “Shouldn’t the President be the one, the only one, who had judgment and courage to oppose the Iraq war from the start?”  One can also look at Obama’s principal campaign speech on foreign policy, his 2007 speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C:

“We did not finish the job against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We did not develop new capabilities to defeat a new enemy, or launch a comprehensive strategy to dry up the terrorists’ base of support. We did not reaffirm our basic values, or secure our homeland.  Instead we got… a rigid 20th century ideology that insisted that the 21st century’s stateless terrorism could be defeated through the invasion and occupation of a state. A deliberate strategy to misrepresent 9/11 to sell war against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.  And so, a little more than a year after that bright September day, I was in the streets of Chicago again, this time speaking at a rally in opposition to war in Iraq. I did not oppose all wars, I said. I was a strong supporter of the war in Afghanistan.  But I said I could not support “a dumb war, a rash war” in Iraq. I worried about a ” U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences” in the heart of the Muslim world. I pleaded that we “finish the fight with bin Ladin and al Qaeda.”[5]

In his 2002 anti-Iraq war speech as well as in his 2007 Wilson Center address, Obama consciously positioned himself to remain within the mainstream of the American political class by articulating vociferous support for the war in Afghanistan.  Rhetorical criticism can help us understand how as a Presidential candidate he came to be identified with this statement, and how this identification worked itself out as a constraint on President Obama’s policy’s options.

To understand Obama’s rhetorical situation one needs to ask, which war in Afghanistan — “The war against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan,” or the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan? In terms of Just War Theory, of which, as we know from President Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, President Obama was a careful student, NATO’s war against the Taliban was justified as a matter of international law, by the fact that the Taliban government of Afghanistan offered Osama Bin Laden the safe haven he needed to plan the 9/11 attacks and refused to hand him over on Bush’s demand.

For most Americans who are not of the “neoconservative persuasion” to justify continuing the war against the Taliban, in 2002, 2003, 2009, 2012, or 2020, requires believing that should the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan they will once again allow their territory to be used as a base for attacks on the American homeland.  To quote Lindsey Graham, “Americans understand that Taliban are bad guys, but what drives the American psyche more than anything is, are we about to let the guys that attacked us once attack us twice?” (Woodward 155).  This claim, like any significant claim in politics, can be questioned (see e.g. Hastings).  To be skeptical about this proposition, is, like it or not, to be skeptical about the merits of the war against the Taliban.

Obama is identified with the claim that the security of the US homeland requires the successful prosecution of the war in Afghanistan, which in effect means the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Bob Woodward reports Graham saying to President-Elect Obama in January 2009:

“Your assessment of the importance of Afghanistan is dead-on. And your assessment of we’ve taken our eye off the ball is right” (Woodward 73).

From Graham’s statements we can infer that Obama’s critique of the Bush administration, for failing to prosecute the Afghanistan war fully, had made an impression on the political elite.  It had also, that elite believed, made an impression on the American public: that Obama was going to do what Bush had left undone in Afghanistan.

Obama’s problem was that his campaign speeches and advertisements had led his audience to infer that Obama was committed to fighting that war to a successful conclusion.  That inference is not logically necessary, but it does follow from the notion that Obama’s criticism of past actions is supposed to be relevant to his administration’s future actions.  For the audience to have made any other inference would violate the principle of relevance, “every act of ostensive communication communicates a presumption of its own optimal relevance” (Sperber and Wilson 158).  For Obama to criticize Bush is to imply that Obama himself would have done better, but the criticism is optimally relevant to the campaign audience of 2007-2008 only if there is something Obama could do in 2009 that would mitigate Bush’s past mistakes.

As President, Obama had to contend with the consequences of his own rhetoric as candidate.  Obama had claimed that the war in Iraq was a distraction from the war in Afghanistan.  For this to be a proposition about the future rather than the past, Obama’s claim seemed to mean that even in 2009, channeling men and resources to Afghanistan could do something worth the effort for American national security.  The Bush Administration acted in large part as if it came to believe that this was no longer true, once the Taliban had been driven out of Kabul and Bin-Laden had escaped into the mountainous border with Pakistan.

We must keep in mind Obama’s 2007 statement, attributing to George W. Bush “A rigid 20th century ideology that insisted that the 21st century’s stateless terrorism could be defeated through the invasion and occupation of a state.”  Which state? Iraq?  Or the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan?  By supporting “the war in Afghanistan,” Obama the candidate sounded like he committed himself to the success of “the invasion and occupation” of Afghanistan.

As things turned out, the “war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan” was over once Al-Qaeda was destroyed in Afghanistan at the beginning of the NATO war there, by the end of 2001 (Jones 96‑97; Bergen).  Most Al-Qaeda fighters and operatives were killed, though Bin-Laden himself, as the world now knows, fled into Pakistan.  One estimate, endorsed by Vice President Biden, was that by 2009 “there were perhaps 50 to 75 foreign fighters in Afghanistan at any given time” (Woodward 185).

The question of which war to fight in Afghanistan was systematically addressed for the first time since the 13 November 2001 fall of Kabul by the Obama administration embarked upon on coming into office in 2009.  Here I have not found a better guide than Bob Woodward, for all his limits.[6]  The uniformed military wanted to reapply the lessons of Iraq and reinforce Afghanistan with sufficient men and resources to win a counterinsurgency war against the Taliban.  A small group clustered around Vice President Joe Biden wanted to restructure America’s efforts in Afghanistan as “counterterrorism plus” (Woodward 159‑160, 234-237).

The version Obama came to articulate once he was in power was that for America to build a modern nation state in Afghanistan and destroy any basis for Taliban resistance, would have been a good idea in 2002-3, when he first proposed it as an Illinois state legislator, as alternative to Bush’s war in Iraq.  In 2009-10 he was not going to find the 600,000 soldiers or any of the other resources that would be required according to US Army counterinsurgency doctrine to defeat the Taliban.

In terms of the judgment on Iraq vs. Afghanistan that was the unique selling proposition on foreign policy of Obama the candidate, Obama the president showed that this bit of campaign rhetoric was not false but was irrelevant as a guide to national security policy for Obama the president.  The Obama Administration view is that the opportunity for nation-building in Afghanistan passed once George W. Bush launched an invasion of Iraq in 2003.[7]

Yet in January 2009 the war against the Taliban was certainly not going well.  Having sold himself as one who supported the “War in Afghanistan” from the start, Obama was not willing to pay the price of being identified with defeat.  For rhetorical critics, the crucial point is that Obama did not even try to restructure the public view of the war in Afghanistan so as to make a public case for the Biden approach.  To emphasize in 2009 that the war he had endorsed was “the war against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan” had at least two pitfalls.  First, to emphasize that the war was against Al-Qaeda would associate Obama too strongly with Bush’s global war on terror.  This would be especially dangerous since here Obama was not really going to walk back from Bush policies, at least once the Democratic Congress of 20009-2011 refused to cooperate in closing the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Second, by January 2009 there had been little effective presence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan for more than seven years, so there was no way to pursue that war in Afghanistan.  As the US commander in Afghanistan, Richard McKiernan, explained to Joe Biden in January, 2009:

What about al Qaeda? Biden asked. The terrorist group was the reason the Americans were in this country. What was their presence like in Afghanistan now? “We haven’t really seen an Arab here in a couple of years,” McKiernan said. For all practical purposes, there was no al Qaeda there. That confirmed what Biden suspected. Al Qaeda — the impetus of this war — was a Pakistani problem (Woodward 70-71).

Obama came into office having as the positive core of his war policy to fight with renewed vigor “the war against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.”  The principal difficulty with implementing this campaign promise is that there was no Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to fight.

Having supported “the war in Afghanistan”, without ever having been specific about which war, Obama felt committed to take up at least some of how the military proposed in 2009 to wage war against the Taliban.  Obama sent the architects of the surge in Iraq, first Stanley McChrystal and then, when McChrystal vented a bit too much to a reporter for the magazine Rolling Stone, to David Petraeus.  Despite Obama’s critique of the regime-change and state-building approach to the War on Terror that the Bush Administration had tried in Iraq, the “Petraeus model of Iraq” would be applied to Afghanistan — but only through summer 2011.

The war against Al-Qaeda, a global movement, continues as we all know around the globe to this day.  Where Obama put his stamp on the global war against al-Qaeda is in pursuing it into Pakistan even at the expense of destroying America’s influence there.  One might expect that this loss of American influence in Pakistan had a price in terms of conducting the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Since Obama kept his promise to begin reducing the presence of US troops in Afghanistan, the question of what his administration actually accomplished in the war against the Taliban did not become politically salient as long as he was in office.[8]



Berger, Peter L.  2012.  Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Osama Bin Laden from 9-11 to Abbotabad.  New York: Crown.

Edwards, George C.  2003.  On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hastings, Michael.  2012.  The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan.  New York: Penguin.

Jones, Seth G.  2010.  In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan, with a new afterword.  New York: W. W. Norton, 2010.

Kernell, Samuel.  1997.  Going Public, third ed.  Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press.

Kochin, Michael S.  2009.  “The Superhero Next Door.”  The 2009 Karl Ritter Lecture in Political Rhetoric, Texas A & M University <>.

Kochin, Michael S.  n.d.  “Democratic Leadership between Inside and Outside,” <>.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson.  1995.  Relevance: Communication and Cognition, second ed.  Oxford: Blackwell.

Tulis, Jeffrey K.  1987.  The Rhetorical Presidency.  Princeton: Princeton University Press

Woodward, Bob.  2010.  Obama’s Wars.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

Zakaria, Fareed.  2003.  The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.  New York: W. W. Norton.



[1]. George W. Bush, Presidential Address to a Joint Session of Congress, 20 September 2001, in “We Will Prevail”: President George W. Bush on War Terrorism and Freedom, selected and edited by the staff of the National Review (New York: Continuum, 2003), 15.

[2].  Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Iraq,” 1 December 2009, (accessed December 2019).

[3].  See Ryan Lizza, “The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring remade Obama’s Foreign Policy,” The New Yorker, 2 May 2011, (accessed December 2019).

[4]. Barack Obama, “3am phone,” (accessed December 2019). I give a fuller treatment of this advertisement in Kochin, “The Superhero Next Door.”

[5]. Barack Obama, Speech at Woodrow Wilson Center, 1 August 2007, available at (accessed December 2019).

[6]. In using Woodward one must keep in mind firstly that his sources are trying to manipulate his account for their own rhetorical purposes.  Secondly, his sources come from the national security elite, who are in better touch with foreign realities than with American popular preferences (a point I discuss in Kochin, “Democratic Leadership”).

[7].  It is still too early for any of Bush’s sometime critics to admit that at least half of Bush’s main motive for the war in Iraq might have been valid.  After 9/11 America had to do big things in the Muslim world (this is contestable, of course).  And after the Taliban were driven out of Kabul there were no more big things for America to do in Afghanistan (also contestable, but not actually contested as of this writing, December 2019).  As Admiral Michael G. Mullen, Bush and then Obama’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in Congressional testimony in December 2007, “In Afghanistan, we do what we can.  In Iraq, we do what we must” (Woodward 2010, 34).

[8]. But see now “At War with the Truth: U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it, an exclusive Post investigation found,” The Washington Post¸9 December 2019,

Thanks to Anna Kochin and David Zarefsky for their comments and corrections.  An earlier version of this paper was presented on a panel at the Rhetorical Society of America, Philadelphia, May 2012.

Michael KochinMichael Kochin

Michael Kochin

Michael Kochin is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Tel Aviv University. He is author Gender and Rhetoric in Plato's Political Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2002), Five Chapters on Rhetoric: Character, Action, Things, Nothing, and Art (Penn State University Press, 2009), and with Michael Taylor, An Independent Empire: Diplomacy & War in the Making of the United States, 1776-1826 (University of Michigan, forthcoming).

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