Obama's "new beginning": US foreign policy and comic exceptionalism.
Even though Obama's Cairo address received mixed reviews, we think that the speech was important because it signaled a turning point in the articulation of American exceptionalism in United States foreign policy. In our view, the Cairo speech was a microcosm of the distinct doctrine of exceptionalism we are calling comic exceptionalism. Comic exceptionalism is the variant of American exceptionalism defined by an emphasis on reflexivity, agonism, and the pursuit of common ground. To elucidate this point, we draw on the connections among Burkean rhetoric, American exceptionalism, and constitutive rhetoric. We begin by outlinining the relevant contexts in which we approach the Cairo address. Second, we revisit the frames of acceptance and show how they foster various orientations among people. We then develop frames' constitution of orientations as a fourth ideological effect of constitutive rhetoric. Fourth, we connect Burke's frames of acceptance to foreign policy discourse. An analysis of Obama's speech in Cairo follows, and we conclude by exploring the implications of our analysis.
CONTEXTUALIZING OBAMA'S ADDRESS AT CAIRO UNIVERSITY
Obama's effort to launch the foreign policy blueprint of his presidency occurred at a rather complex point in history. Part of the problem Obama faced stemmed from the absence of a coherent strategy in Middle East policy during the latter years of George W. Bush's administration. As Mead (2010) explained, after the initially unilateralist response to 9/11 sputtered, the Bush foreign policy team attempted to rationalize American conduct abroad by recourse to Wilsonian idealism. The war in Iraq became "a war to establish democracy, first in Iraq and then throughout the region" (Mead, 2010, p. 61). Bush's turn to idealism angered hardline conservatives who favored the unilateralism he had displayed in the early days of the war, while less hawkish moderates were skeptical about the sincerity of his idealism. The foreign policy chaos was so bad, wrote Mead (2010), "Bush [himself] (sic) could not have developed a strategy better calculated to dissolve his political support" (p. 61). Elsewhere within the region, escalating political tensions punctuated the salience of Obama's speech: Israeli citizens were establishing controversial settlements in the West Bank; moreover, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks had stalled; America's wars continued despite Obama being in office for four months; Iran was seeking weapons grade nuclear technology, and an Iran-backed Hezbollah was campaigning aggressively in elections in Lebanon. Furthermore, the intricacies of an interdependent global economy-illustrated painfully in the 2008 economic meltdown-made it clear that the United States economy could no longer withstand American unilateralism. In short, as Obama ascended to the White House, a confluence of the forces of twenty-first century globalization, among them high-speed information connections, American indebtedness to Chinese largesse and labor, reliance on foreign oil, and the protracted "War on Terror" set the stage for yet another recalibration in the meanings of exceptionalism in United States foreign policy.
Obama's Cairo address was the most prominent culmination of a series of remarks he made in which he laid out what might be called the "Obama doctrine". In a speech on the military conflict in Iraq in 2006, he had argued that the United States needed to engage the country's neighbors, including Syria and Iran, in order to resolve the war and that America must "be more modest in our belief that we can impose democracy on a country through military force" (Obama, 2006, para. 45). By the time he entered the democratic primary, Obama was more explicit in his advocacy for a comic frame in foreign policy rhetoric. On the stump he advocated for "the most aggressive diplomatic effort in recent history to reach a new compact in the region" (Obama, 2007, para. 32). After winning the presidency in 2008, Obama wasted no time in signaling his intention to adopt a new orientation in foreign policy. His first inaugural address promised to "seek a new way forward [with the Muslim world] (sic) based on mutual interest and mutual respect" (Obama, 2009a, para. 20). Speaking to the country's adversaries, Obama declared, "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist" (para. 20). In his first interview as president, which he granted to Al Arabiya, Obama expressed how the United States would unclench its own fist by dropping the portrayal of its adversaries as evil. As he explained, "the language we use matters . .. [we] cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith's name" (Obama, 2009b, para. 16). By the time Obama addressed the Turkish parliament in April 2009, he began to preview the tenets of the message he would expound in Cairo. "We must listen to one another," Obama (2009c) stated in Ankara, "and seek common ground. That is why we must build on our mutual interests, and rise above our differences. We are stronger when we act together" (para. 14).
Several scholars have already demonstrated how Obama's expression of American exceptionalism broke with the tendencies and trajectories of his predecessors. Observing his departure from Bush's unipolar exceptionalism, Ivie and Giner (2009a) wrote, "The rhetorical turn of Obama's  presidential campaign was toward the more democratically robust theme of interdependency, not just interconnectedness" (p. 372). "Rather than reiterate talk of sinister deviance and evil savagery," Ivie and Giner (2009b) noted elsewhere that Obama, "spoke instead of responding to America's calling in a new spirit of confidence, intelligence, tolerance, and caring for global humanity" (p. 290). Mead (2010) argued that whereas George W. Bush's foreign policy resembled the legacies of Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson, Obama's diplomatic sensibilities seemed to reflect those of Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson. All this was "symptomatic," Edwards (2012) observed, "of a larger debate in the United States concerning its exceptionalist ethos" (p. 352). While we generally agree with these analyses, we combine the rhetorical concepts of frames and constitutive rhetoric to American exceptionalism to make a case for comic exceptionalism. Comic exceptionalism brings about (i.e. it constitutes) an egalitarian orientation among actors. It favors international cooperation and frames adversaries as misguided, rather than as anathema, and is thus a means of taming the cataclysmic implications that often result from international disagreements. Through many of his foreign policy pronouncements, Obama challenged world leaders and general populations alike to view each other as flawed members of the great community of humans. Whereas George W. Bush claimed at the beginning of the "War on Terror" that the United States was the world's lone paragon of virtue and that all who meant well had better align with her in the struggle against the "axis of evil," Obama saw exceptionalism as a belief common among many nations. Whereas Clinton saw the United States as the world's great purveyor of democracy and human rights, Obama insisted that although both were indispensible to civilization, each nation had the right to manifest these principles in culturally specific ways. The lynchpin of the Obama doctrine, then, was not minimalism, interventionism, isolationism, idealism, nor realism alone, but mutuality. Obama favored a foreign policy premised on a belief in the indispensible mutuality of minimalism and interventionism, idealism and realism, and, to render things in Burkean terms, the mutuality of both comedy and tragedy. Most importantly, we think, Obama was moved by the mutuality, as we show below, that defines the human experience.
To clarify, we neither mean to suggest that all of the Obama administration's foreign policy actions manifested the comic orientation we describe, nor that the administration was the first to espouse a version of comic exceptionalism. Indeed, some of the policies Obama pursued-the infamous drone wars being one example-continued and even refined the less comedic legacy of some of his predecessors. Moreover, the Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter administrations, to list two, preceded Obama in projecting a broad humanitarian concern into their foreign policy raison d'etre (McCrisken, 2003; Mead, 2010). The prominent role the United States has and continues to play on the world's stage demands that foreign policy administrators excel at parsing the subtleties of complex situations and act on nuanced and carefully chosen principles. The orientation we outline here is just one such philosophical nuance Obama wielded when he assumed the presidency.
BURKE'S FRAMES OF ACCEPTANCE
Describing how humans make sense of their symbolic worlds, Burke (1937/1984) argued, "In the motives we assign to the actions of ourselves and our neighbors, there is implicit a program of socialization" (p. 170). Burke termed that program "frames," which are codes that "shape our relations with our fellows. They prepare us for some functions and against others, [and] (sic) for or against the persons representing these functions" (p. 4). They provide a "more or less organized system of meanings by which a thinking man gauges the historical situation and adopts a role with relation to it" (p. 5). As Carlson (1986) explained, "frames serve as perspectives from which all interpretations of experience are made. In their broadest sense, frames are applied as a chart for social action, because they constitute attitudes and motives" (p. 447). Frames foment both the symbolic significance of action and the impetus for reaction. According to Burke, these codes for interpretation are rooted in the poetic categories of epic, tragedy, comedy, elegy, satire, burlesque, and the grotesque. Commenting on these frames, Burke (1937/1984) noted that "in the epic, the tragic, and the comic frames the element of acceptance is uppermost" (p. 43). The distinction between the epic, comic, and tragic frames, then, is in how each frame facilitates acceptance and the orientation each frame offers individuals for perceiving and accepting the other. Our focus on the frames of acceptance is premised on our belief that the goal of finding ways to accept and deal with reality is central in foreign policy, an enterprise devoted to coming to terms with the restiveness of relations with the nations of the world. We believe a turn to the comic frame is what was unique about Obama's attempt to re-orient U.S. relations with the Muslim world.
In his brief comments on epic form, Burke stressed that its main function is to adjust mankind to insurmountable reality. The epic, he explained, "is designed, then, under primitive conditions to make man 'at home in' those [difficult] (sic) conditions (Burke, 1937/1984, p. 35). It "lends dignity to the necessities of existence" (p. 35), such as the vagaries of war by allowing members of the afflicted society vicarious identification with heroes. Yet the identification ordinary people have with heroes, who contend with the insurmountable, is not egalitarian in the epic frame. Epic heroes are always superior in quality to those that identify with them, as they "mediate between men and gods, having qualities of both" (p. 36). In the epic frame ordinary people have access to the extraordinary through their heroes' humanity. In turn, the human qualities of the heroes grant them credibility as people. The point we want to stress here is that the epic is a frame that motivates a superior-inferior orientation among people. When they do not view each other through the epic frame, humans deal with each other through the tragic or comic frames.
The prominent place the tragic frame occupies in Burkean thought is made clear in Rueckert's (1963) observation that "Burke has written more about tragedy than any other form" (p. 210). While the task of accounting for all of Burke's thoughts on tragedy extends beyond the scope of our project, we will focus here on two points raised in Burke's analysis of tragedy that enable us to tease out the implications of the tragic and comic frames for orientations in foreign policy. The first is that tragedy embodies the ultimate reduction of Burke's sensibilities about how humans mis/use symbols. "Burke considers tragedy the 'ideal' or 'perfect' poetic verbal act," Rueckert noted, adding, "he makes tragedy the 'essence' of poetry and approaches 'poetics' in terms of tragedy" (p. 208). "Tragedy," Burke (1959) conceded, "is the most 'perfect' (that is, 'finished') form" of symbolic action (p. 339). In Permanence and Change, he summarized: "the tragic symbol is the device par excellence for recommending a cause. How could one better picture an issue in an appealing light than by showing that people were willing to be destroyed in behalf of it?" (Burke, 1935/1954, p. 196). To this we ask, how is it that "tragedy is Burke's representative anecdote" (Rueckert, 1963, p. 209)? The key lies in that the transformation of tragedy is the best example of how Burkean poetics regards human conduct as action rather than motion. Unlike the behavioristic account in which human conduct is understood reductively as a series of mechanistic responses to stimuli, the dramatistic view imputes reasons for action to non-corporeal sources. "In the tragic plot," Burke (1937/1984) wrote, "the deus ex machinal always lurking," goading the characters in tragedy to action by "motivating forces [that] (sic) are superhuman" (p. 42). For this reason, the character in tragedy is to Burke, "cosmic [wo/]man" (p. 42); s/he derives reason to act extrinsically, from something other than intrinsic instinct. It is tragedy's illustration of how symbols infuse meaningless and mechanistic human motions with motive that Burke values in tragedy; tragedy shows how symbols motivate and how symbol users "act." To Burke, the transcendence of motion by action, also applies to knowledge and subjectivity (Wess, 1996). For example, he noted that, "knowledge is [produced] (sic) through the act of assertion, whereby one 'suffers' the kind of knowledge that is the reciprocal of his act" (Burke, 1969, p. 38). In other words, "knowledge" is what justifies an act after the fact but is "irreducible to the antecedent" of that act (Wess, 1996, p. 127). Knowledge is possible only as a result of an act; it is not a platonic transcendence that hovers before and above acts. It is the reciprocal of action. Likewise, a subject or agent is (re)born in the ruptures of history in which a new act occurs. Burke (1969) put it this way: "The act, in being an assertion, has called forth a counter-assertion in the elements that compose its context. And when the agent is enabled to see in terms of this counter-assertion, he has transcended the state that characterized him at the start" (p. 38). Just as knowledge is the reciprocal of action, a knowing subject is the reciprocal of (an unknowing) subject. All this implies, to return to the example of tragedy, that the act, agent, and purpose are simultaneously fulfilled in the denouement of tragedy. To use Burke's language once again, "the fatal accidents are felt to bear fully upon the act, while the act itself is felt to have summed up the character of the agent" (p. 39). This account of tragedy offers a straightforward understanding of a tragic orientation to international relations: in this view the pursuit and protection of a national ethos, patriotism, and nationalism constitute the utmost and noblest cause. This in turn reduces the antagonistic other to the level of a prop or something to be dealt with instrumentally in the mission quest.
If Burke is enthralled by tragedy because through it he can demonstrate how symbol use enables the human animal to escape bio-mechanistic determinism, the second point that is germane to our argument from his analysis is that he is also cautious about the compulsion tragedy and symbol-systems alike have to carry things "to the end of the line" (Hyman, 1969, p. 221). Just as actors in tragedy are induced to step over the precipice by fidelity to ulterior purpose, symbol users, too, are driven to extremes to the point of death, by nothing other than the logics inherent to the symbol systems to which they subscribe. When the transcendence of tragedy afflicts the symbol-using animal, it enables idealistic contemplation and, with that, the temptation of entelechy. Burke (1966) makes this point poignantly when he refers to humans as "rotten with perfection" (p. 16) in his definition of man. Rotten with perfection is the pathology specific to the tragic frame. Those who see the world through a tragic frame operate from perfect world ideals, and their sense of purity demands protection of their social order. The projection of purity, moreover, requires "a sacrificial scapegoat who suffers, dies, or is banished by society in a symbolic attempt to rid itself of chaos, disease, and impurity" (Christiansen & Hanson, 1996, p. 159). Thus, rhetoric in the tragic frame has a form that is easily recognizable. The melodrama appears as a struggle "between good and bad principles of social order" (Duncan, 1968, p. 34), and is "personified in heroes and villains, Gods and devils, allies and enemies" (p. 23). Finally, for Burke (1959) the ability to understand tragedy is specific to human beings: "tragic weeping might be a way of crying peculiar only to the laughing animal, the symbol-using animal" (p. 342). In this specificity to humanity tragedy implies comedy. One cannot understand tragedy absent a comedic awareness that itself manifests a realization of the partiality and nominalism inherent in different terminologies. It is the symbol-using animal alone that is capable of the ethical, moral, and reasoning-valuing, to borrow a turn of phrase from Walter Fisher, to break out of biological determinism. This brings us to comedy and the comedic frame.
Though tragedy may be a perfect model of Burkean poesis, Burke is unequivocal in stressing that comedy is the ideal expression of a healthy symbol system. In his discussion of tragedy, Burke (1959) expresses sympathy with George Meredith's insistence that "a wholly civilized world would be a comic one" (p. 339). The comic view is valuable because it is analytical: it is the perspective of perspectives. Burke's perfect rhetor is comedic in the same way that Rorty's (1989) liberal ironist is "ironic"; s/he harbors "continuing doubts about the final vocabulary s/he currently uses" (p. 73). In other words, Burkean comedy is a nominalist attitude that realizes the contingency and partiality of every vocabulary. Comic agonists regard each other as flawed, thus raising the possibility of reform, rather than as evil, which would necessitate mortification or redemption. The comic frame entails an assumption "that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness" (Burke, 1937/1984, p. 41). In this respect, the comic frame is charitable by retaining a "faith in the natural goodness of human beings" (Carlson, 1988, p. 312), seeks maximum consciousness in that it enables people to be observers of themselves while acting (Burke, 1937/1984, p. 171), and provides the proper "attitude towards people that is required for purposes of persuasion and co-operation" (p. 166). Tragedy and the tragic figure by contrast know no such equivocality. "Unlike the tragic victim," Duncan (1968) explained, "who puts us in communication with supernatural power capable of great evil as well as good, the comic victim keeps us within the world" (p. 24). The comic frame's emphasis on the importance of discussion allows for peaceful and democratic resolution to conflicts. As a result, Duncan argued, "there is hope of correcting our social ills because in such talk reason can bring to light much that is hidden in the dark majesty of tragedy" (p. 25). Thus, it is no surprise that Burke (1937/1984) called the comic frame "the most serviceable for the handling of human relationships" (p. 106), and that several studies have mentioned its effectiveness as a strategy in dealing with social adversity (Carlson, 1986, 1988; Christiansen & Hanson, 1996; Powell, 1995).
FRAMES AND THE FOURTH IDEOLOGICAL EFFECT
Our argument rests on the assumption that American exceptionalism, whatever else it may be, is one way by which Americans understand their nation's orientation to the world. American leaders, from the Puritan clergy who were the official spokesmen of the colonial conquest to figures of the present day, have commonly employed the rhetoric of exceptionalism to both defend and rally support for America's peculiar mission on the world's stage. However, despite its persistence through centuries of American public discourse, exceptionalism figures not as a singular rhetorical form as much as it is a topos or a commonplace that various actors invoke for a myriad purposes (Adas, 2001; Appleby, 1992; Bercovitch 1978, 1980; Edwards, 2009; Edwards & Weiss, 2011; Koh, 2003; Lipset, 1996; Tyrrell, 1991; Wander, 1984). Because it can be applied so many different ways, exceptionalism is a cipher in an amorphous discursive formation that parlays in the meanings of the American idea. The brilliance of the ideology of America is, as Bercovich (1980) pointed out, that it is a "concordia discors" (p. 6), an idea that is paradoxically reinforced through conflicts about its very meanings.
Following Charland's (1984) insight that "ultimately, the position one embodies as a subject is a rhetorical effect" (p. 148), our analysis shows that in addition to creating subjectivities, rhetoric also constitutes the ways in which subjects interact. As Burke (1937/ 1984) explained, "in deciding why people do as they do, we get the cues that place us with relation to them" (p. 170). In other words, Burke's frames of acceptance-the epic, tragic, and comic-show how Obama's comic interpretation of exceptionalism tried to constitute ways for Americans and Muslims around the world to view each other. We therefore propose a fourth ideological effect of constitutive rhetoric to the three Charland outlined in his famous essay (pp. 138-41). A fourth ideological effect of constitutive rhetoric can be rendered thus: constitutive rhetorics impute motives which in turn imply responses to conduct, both one's own and that of the other. These rhetorics enable us to look at ourselves as well as the other from without. The fourth ideological effect makes sense of the other's conduct establishing a basis for how we respond. Just as the other ideological effects (i.e., the collective subject, transhistorical subjectivity, and the illusion of freedom) are fictions that have no exact material correlative, our systems of interpreting behavior are similarly discursive fictions. The utility of the comic frame as Burke (1937/1984) explained is that it makes "a man the student of himself," and makes it possible for him to "'transcend' occasions when he has been tricked or cheated, since he can readily put such discouragements in his 'assets' column, under the head of 'experience'" (p. 171). Through reflexivity, agonism, and the realization of the imperfection of all humans, the comic frame compels us to magnanimity, patience, and humility in our dealings with the other.
EPIC AND TRAGIC FRAMES IN U.S. FOREIGN POLICY
The epic orientation in United States foreign policy is typified in what might be called, following McCrisken (2003) the "missionary strand of exceptionalism." Missionary exceptionalism combines idealism, expansionism, and interventionism in foreign policy. It is the doctrine that the U.S. has a divinely inspired errand to promote justice, liberty, and prosperity around the world. No figure in the history of United States foreign policy better exemplifies the epic orientation than former president Woodrow Wilson (Edwards, 2009; McCrisken, 2003; Mead, 2010). In 1914, for instance, Wilson told the graduating class at the Naval Academy in Annapolis that, "the only distinction that America has" is that her "errand" and "her glory" are tied to "the very foundations of those things that have made the spirit of men free and happy and content" (paras. 6-7). With such lofty ideas about America's role, Edwards (2008) argued that Wilson sought to "universalize" (p. 278) the American expression of democracy by sanctioning a league of nations that would safeguard democracy and human rights. Wilson's expansionist and interventionist drives stemmed from his belief that the American way was the sole guarantor of both world peace and freedom for all human beings. If only nations around the world would identify with the American way, then peace and liberty would prevail on the earth. The limits of the epic frame are clear when the American ability to fulfill her errand falls short, as was the case with Clinton in Somalia and Rwanda.
Along with the widespread use of the epic frame in United States foreign policy, scholars have also pointed out a perspective common among American diplomatic operators that is consistent with Burke's insights on the tragic frame. In his review of Vietnam era American rhetoric, Wander (1984) identified a rhetorical form he calls prophetic dualism. The tragic motivations that constitute prophetic dualism appear in two key principles Wander described. First, like the tragic orientation, prophetic dualism is the rhetoric of a Manichean version of exceptionalism that "divides the world into two camps," an evil "them" and a good "us" (Wander, 1984, p. 342). In this view, Wander continued, "one side acts in accord with all that is good, decent, and at one with God's will. The other acts in direct opposition" (p. 342). The second principle of prophetic dualism is an entelechial compulsion. According to Wander, the only way to resolve the putative antimony between the two sides is "through the total victory of one side over the other" (p. 342). Similar tendencies are expressed by Jacksonian exceptionalism in Mead's (2010) typology of presidential foreign policy. Jacksonians, Mead noted, believe that "those who disregard the rule [of honorable warfare] (sic) must be hunted down and killed regardless of technical niceties" (p. 60). This tragic frame goads one to view the adversary as a mortal enemy, it compels dealing with the other with neither caution nor restraint.
Post-9/11 political rhetoric in the United States was dominated by the tragic frame. Several scholars have argued that in order to control the public sphere and gain support for two wars the Bush administration turned to a religious narrative that demonized Muslims everywhere (Bostdorff, 2003; Gunn, 2004; Ivie, 2004; Murphy, 2003). Gunn (2004) noted that Bush "described the terrorists' intent and motives as 'evil,' reducing human action to inhuman motion and thereby dehumanizing the racial/religious Other as monsters controlled by a malevolent force" (p. 3). It was a religious narrative, Ivie (2007) argued, because it was "filled with heroes and villains, divided by good and evil, and given purpose by God's will, which was to be fulfilled by people of faith" (pp. 223-224). This framing was consistent in Bush's rhetoric, and his description of "evil [as a] cause rather than an effect" (Bostdorff, 2003, p. 303) was a crucial appeal in his lobbying for unilateral and pre-emptive military action. The framing eventually became a mainstream view. As Bostdorff concluded, over time "the speeches of secular political leaders likewise came to endow the U.S. with special qualities that portrayed it as uniquely blessed" (p. 302). The news media also tended to echo Bush's use of the tragic frame, as Abrahamian (2003) discovered, describing the September 11th attacks "within the context of Islam, of cultural conflicts, and of Western civilization threatened by the Other" (p. 531).
The tragic interpretation of the post-9/11 world had harsh implications. The insistence that people were either with the United States or supporting the terrorists created unequal power relations and stifled democratic deliberation (Coe, Domke, Graham, John, & Pickard, 2004; Murphy, 2003). Moreover, the demonization of the Middle East led to violence directed at Muslims abroad and in the United States (Abrahamian, 2003). Furthermore, portraying Muslims and the Middle East as evil led to "rituals of violence in reciprocal acts of demonization that [marked] (sic) everyone as legitimate targets" (Ivie, 2003, p. 184). The only way to break this cycle, some suggested, was to start "addressing one's adversary as mistaken rather than evil" (p. 190).
By 2009, this extreme manner of speaking was running out of steam. As Zarefsky (2014) remarked, many around the world believed Americans could no longer "invoke claims to exceptionalism when they [were] dependent on the goodwill of others" (p. 116). Yet though it was clear around the world and to some at home that Jacksonian exceptionalism was no longer feasible, many Americans believed it was still the best way forward. This meant that "for the sake of America's role in the world," Zarefsky continued, Obama "needed to abandon or at least strongly attenuate claims to American exceptionalism, which for the sake of his domestic audience, he [needed] to reaffirm" (p. 124) as he made public his administration's stance on foreign policy. What rhetoricians such as Ivie, Giner, and Zarefsky urged is a turn to the comic frame to stave off the dangers of the melodrama created by the discourse on the War on Terror.
THE COMIC IMPLICATIONS OF OBAMA'S "A NEW BEGINNING"
President Obama's goal for his speech in Egypt was to outline "a new beginning," which he explained was a response to "tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate" (Obama, 2009d, para. 2). The fact was, he noted, that although the "relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation," it also included "conflict and religious wars" (para. 2). Yet diagnosis was not the only thing Obama sought to do: his was an account that also explained why the tensions continued. For this he blamed colonial policies that "denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims," the Cold War "in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies," and change brought about by modernity (para. 2). Obama's list of causes for the ongoing tensions between Muslims and the United States is striking for several reasons. First, it is a list that did not attempt to minimize the West's contribution to instability in the Middle East. Moreover, Obama did not just lump responsibility on the generic "West," rather he placed specific blame where it was due: Europe for violations and violence endured in the Middle East during European colonization, and the United States for the cold war. Second, Obama did not merely scapegoat western interventionism while letting terrorists escape culpability for their violence. At the same time, he did not blame all Muslims together for the actions of a radicalized minority. With the exception of his treatment of modernity, which he does not sufficiently complicate, Obama's historical gloss was a perspective of perspectives. His language suggested a comic approach: all parties were mutually embroiled in the suspicion and discord. A Burkian perspective reveals a comic impulse in his explanation that, "So long as our relationship is defined by our difference, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace" (para. 4). Obama repudiated the hermeneutic of difference-implicit in both the epic and tragic frames-for analysis acknowledging mutual complicity in what was amiss.
The language of Obama's speech in Cairo not only implied a comic framing of United States-Middle East relations, it constituted both the Muslim other and the relationship between America and the international other. This was clearest in the unbalanced equation that is apparent early in the speech. In the fifth paragraph Obama asserted, "America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles-principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings" (para. 5). Counter-intuitively, Obama's relational thesis was followed by a call for "a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground" (para. 6), leaving us wondering why, given the United States and Islam's long shared history, a call to listen to each other was necessary. Solving this conundrum requires recognizing the constitutive function both statements played. The coeval explanation Obama presented in the fifth paragraph was not a reflection of reality but an aspirational or ideological statement in that it "create[d] the illusion of merely" reminding the audience of the "unified and unproblematic subjectivity" (Charland, 1984, p. 139), of both the United States and the Muslim world where in fact the reality was much different. By contrast, the call of the sixth paragraph manifested what we think of as a fourth ideological effect of constitutive rhetoric: formulating the orientation constituted subjects take toward the other. In other words, the sixth paragraph reveals the ideals of Obama's comic frame: reflexivity, agonism, and the pursuit of common ground.
The language of reflexivity, agonism, and a focus on common ground, presented Americans and citizens of the Muslim world as co-members in a society of flawed but improving human beings. As Burke noted (1937/1984), "comedy deals with man in society [...] comedy is essentially humane" (p. 42). This worldview is consistent, for example, with Obama's assertion that "any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail" (Obama, 2009d, para. 17). Moreover, the last three-fourths of the speech demonstrated the mutually respectful engagement of the comic frame. If the speech's opening paragraphs announced a comic rhetorical ethic, the remainder of the address functioned as a demonstrative argument showcasing the application of the principles. The demonstration appears in the discussion of the seven points of stasis Obama established between the United States and Muslims around the world: violent extremism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom, women's rights, and economic development. Our analysis of Obama's discussion of each of these points shows that he merged the principles of reflexivity, agonism, and common ground thus enacting the "new beginning" he sought.
Reflexivity, the central modality of what political theorist Brian Garsten (2006) has called a "politics of persuasion," which requires us to step outside our particular perspectives and look, "to understand the commitments, beliefs, and passions of the other side" (p. 210), is the first lesson we glean from the speech's demonstrative sections. "The partnership between America and Islam," Obama argued, "must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't" (Obama, 2009d, para. 10). Similarly, he insisted, "America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire (para. 11). That ability to bring each side's stereoscopic vision into bold relief, is a reflexive practice. This practice was implied when Obama spoke of "the responsibility we have to one another as human beings" (para. 16). In Cairo, Obama presented his positions, and by extension America's positions, as only some of the alternative views in a multilateral relationship. Reflexivity is clearest in Obama's synecdochic invocation of his religious biography: "I'm a Christian but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims" (para. 7). The point was one he often made during his 2008 campaign; both religions were indispensible parts of his humanity, a humanity he had argued was hardly unique (para. 12). Reflexivity is apparent throughout the latter part of the speech. Beginning his discussion of violent extremism, for instance, Obama reiterated a point he made in his address in Turkey that "America is not-and never will be-at war with Islam" (para. 20). Then, he admitted forthrightly that the Iraq war had been mishandled. "Unlike Afghanistan," he declared, "Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world" (para. 25). That unfortunate war, he continued, was a reminder to America "of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible" (para. 25). Similarly, the reflexive impulse was clear when Obama conceded the United States had been wrong when it covertly supported the 1953 ouster of Mohammad Mosaddegh who had been legitimately elected prime minister of Iran in 1951 (para. 43). Frank self-critique is evident when Obama turned to nuclear weapons. Again, he began by acknowledging the perception that nuclear holding nations invoked non-proliferation to keep non-nuclear nations from possessing the dangerous arms. As he said, "I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not" (para. 45). The thread connecting all of these cases was a reflexive impulse. Rhetorical reflexivity, as it merged in Obama's speech was about assessing, as impartially as possible, one's own conduct or that of the community to which one belonged.
A second comic principle apparent in Obama's speech is the idea of agonism. Comic agonism is closely linked to the first principle but differs in an important way. Whereas the principle of reflexivity implies honestly appraising one's own positions and those of the other, agonism entails honoring the identity of the other. According to Mouffe (2005), "agonism is a we/they relation where the conflicting parties, although acknowledging that there is no rational solution to their conflict, nevertheless recognize the legitimacy of their opponents" (p. 20). What is important to note is that taken together, reflexivity and agonism in Obama's speech constituted the orientation one takes toward the other as a comic perspective. This comic agonism of which Obama spoke is the strongest antidote to the entelechial compulsion to view the other as the "perfect enemy." Agonism was the reason Obama (2009d) gave as the impetus for his trip: "I've come here to Cairo," he said, "to seek a new beginning ... one based on the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition" (para. 5). Elsewhere, Obama's comments on democracy reflected agonism, especially when he stated, "No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other ... Each nation gives life to [democracy] in its own way." (paras. 47-48). Couching his support for democracy in this manner enabled Obama to lobby for democracy without insisting that all democracies clone the American model. Similarly, one can see agonism in Obama's description of the links between the United States and Israel as "unbreakable" (para. 30), a description that demanded respect for an uncompromisable aspect of America's national identity.
Obama not only demanded respect for his country's stated positions, he encouraged respect both for and between Muslims as well. He spoke, for example, of religious freedom, which he said was "central to the ability of peoples to live together" (para. 55). He condemned inter-sect violence, saying, "if we are being honest, fault lines must be closed among Muslims, as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence" (para. 54). And in a thinly veiled critique of the French government, which had recently passed anti-hijab legislation, Obama cautioned against "hostility toward any religion behind the pretense of liberalism" (para. 55). Obama also embodied the respectful interlocutor when he rejected the false choice between development and tradition saying, "There need not be contradictions between development and tradition" (para. 63). Just as he argued that Islam and the United States could coexist amicably, tradition and development could share the same cultural space; societies could embrace change and retain the practices and mores of old. The best example of the agonistic interlocutor appeared at the end of the speech when Obama cemented his appeal for peace by quoting from the Bible, the Qur'an, and the Talmud. "The Holy Koran tells us," Obama said quoting directly, "O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another" (para. 74). Continuing, he drew from the Talmud, "The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace" (para. 75). Finally, he quoted Matthew 5:9, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God" (para. 76). Obama's invocation of the Abrahamic faiths presented the three traditions as idioms of the same point: deity's wish for peace on earth and goodwill to all humankind. In this view, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity figure as allies, not competitors. The emphasis on mutuality found fullest expression in the third principle of comic exceptionalism, the idea of common ground.
The third principle reflected in Obama's new beginning was what we are calling the "common ground" principle. Within the comic view, common ground is a principle of dialectical transcendence. Common ground refers to the values, goals, or outcomes interlocutors identify as mutually beneficial. In Obama's telling, global cooperation in confronting mutual challenges and in striving to realize mutual values were precisely these kinds of goals. He called them "the hope of all humanity" (para. 14). To this he juxtaposed the follies of isolationism and balkanization:
For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century, (para. 16)
Obama suggested that world leaders would not get very far as long as they tried to tackle problems apart from each other. The antidote implied in his language was that of a comic perspective. We can also see in this quote the Burkean intuition that the world is filled with tragedy the comic view notwithstanding. This is a point to which we return in the conclusion.
Obama's core belief, that "interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces" that separate people (para. 6), was both baseline and telosioi the new beginning. First, matters of concern to all people figured as objectives, the attainment of which demanded actors on the global stage set aside their parochial interests. On violent terrorism, for example, Obama urged partnership in the quest to end radical extremism instead of squabbling over who was responsible for attacks because, "the sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer" (para. 28). The importance of shared interests and goals was also clear when he spoke of the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons. "This is not simply about America's interests," he said, adding, "It's about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path" (para. 44). Selfish pursuits of nuclear weapons by some countries edged the world closer to an apocalypse; only selfless cooperation would stave off the crisis.
In addition, mutual interests also served as beginnings in Obama's formulation. As he put it, "recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task" (para. 15). Once matters of shared concern had been identified, then the work of preserving humanity could commence. If the world's leaders could rally each other and prevail on their respective nations to work together, then and only then would the prospects of humanity be secured. In other words, successful cooperation would usher in a new beginning for humanity. Addressing the challenges that threatened some segments of humanity secured a better future for all humanity, not just those in power, or those on frontlines of crises. As he said when he spoke of the importance of safeguarding women's rights, "Our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity-men and women-to reach their full potential" (para. 60).
At the end of May, 2012, The New York Times published a lengthy expose chronicling Obama's involvement with what might be remembered as the single most important military development of his presidency: the emergence of unmanned aerial vehicles (known colloquially as "drones") as the preferred method in covert killing operations overseas (Becker & Shane, 2012). The article painted a stark picture of a seemingly profound contradiction at the heart of the Obama presidency: here was a liberal president, elected in part to clean up the mess of the unnecessary war started by his predecessor, intimately engaged in methodically authorizing the robotic killing of enemy combatants. "Nothing else," wrote Becker and Shane (2012), "has baffled liberal supporters and confounded his conservative critics alike as his aggressive counterterrorism record" (para. 7). How does one reconcile the comic doctrine of exceptionalism in Obama's foreign policy with his willingness, reluctant though it may have been, to kill? The answer to this question brings us to the implications of comic exceptionalism.
Obama's prosecution of certain military operations should neither surprise nor confound because-and this is the first implication-an embrace of comic exceptionalism does not preclude one from functioning in other modes of acceptance. Recall that for Burke, acceptance is a dialectic of contending with reality through epic, tragic, and comic emplotments. Foreign policy, and the world are both too complex and much too diverse to navigate with the use of only some of the equipment for living. Obama's (2009e) rejoinder to the questions skeptics posed regarding his receipt of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize was most explicit on this point: "There will be times when nations-acting individually or in concert-will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified" (para. 14). His reasoning about the appropriateness of tragic responses to special circumstances was pragmatic: "I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people" (para. 16). Obama here manifested the Burkean insight on the commensurability of comedy and tragedy as responses to the world.
Second, this attempt to fuse Burke's notion of frames with American exceptionalism reveals how the frames of acceptance are deliberative and epideictic forms of rhetoric. In the conclusion of the Cairo address Obama (2009d) reiterated the slate of policy outcomes he tried to discuss in the speech:
A world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all of God's children are respected, (para. 69)
Those were the deliberative goals he sought and which he merged with a comic imperative when he spoke of "the world we seek. But we can only achieve it together" (para. 69). The comic expression of American exceptionalism reconstitutes foreign relations as a deliberative and proactive undertaking. In this understanding, the epideictic, being a genre of praise and blame, is better suited to epic and tragic forms of exceptionalism and foreign policy. The epic as Burke (1937/1984) noted, has a presentist bias-"it lends dignity to the necessities of existence" (p. 35). The tragic frame in this view has a historicist bias; it always seeks after the causes of (past) actions. Neither epic nor tragic framing takes the future to be a primary preoccupation.
Third, our account of comic exceptionalism suggests that ideological consensus is not wrought simply by agreement and assent. Indeed, the kind of consensus that sustains ideologies like exceptionalism through centuries is tolerant of, and in some ways thrives on, dissent and inventive appropriation. Different understandings of what exceptionalism means consolidate rather than curtail the ideology. Stated differently, the foreign policy approaches we have labeled "epic," "tragic," and "comic" respectively, while at odds with each other, are all articulations of American exceptionalism. They contest the meanings of exceptionalism, not the plausibility of exceptionalism as an appropriate cipher for American understandings of themselves both at home as well on the world's stage. Through their dialectical tension, embodied most recently in the policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, different modes of exceptionalism together have ensured exceptionalism's endurance in the twenty-first century and beyond.
Charting differences among notions of exceptionalism from the Burkean view is one way to better understand rhetoric's constitution of exceptionalism. This allows us to complicate our understandings of the mixed reactions to Obama's speech. Our analysis raises the possibility that the controversy generated in the responses to the speech signals a crisis in the public discourse that marks the lexical changes that ensure the continued endurance of exceptionalism. The speech was not only about transcending differences among people as has been noted of Obama's other speeches (Bostdorff, 2009; Ivie & Giner, 2009b; Rowland & Jones, 2007; Terrill, 2009). Taken together, both the speech and the reactions it engendered mark a moment in which meanings of exceptionalism in the twenty-first century were negotiated once again.
Finally, while we are not the first to point out that the meanings of exceptionalism evolve--Lipset (1996), McCrisken (2003), Edwards (2009, 2012), and others made the point before us-our analysis suggests how a Burkean perspective can be useful for illuminating the contestations of exceptionalism's meanings. This essay shows how Burke's understanding of frames can help us illuminate one way by which evolutions in the meanings of American exceptionalism occur. In our case, we can conclude that the transformation in the meanings of exceptionalism attempted in the Obama doctrine highlight the importance of orientation between the rhetorically constituted subjectivities. This opens the door to further Burkean analyses that demonstrate the multiplicity of ways by which exceptionalism is taken up, appropriated, and adapted in foreign policy discourse. In addition, future studies can further complicate what we know about constitutive rhetoric by adding to the list of ideological effects Charland developed. Certainly rhetoric's constitutive function extends beyond the establishment of identity and orientations.
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Kundai Chirindo, Department of Rhetoric and Media Studies, Lewis & Clark College; Ryan Neville-Shepard, Division of Liberal Arts, Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus. A previous version of this essay was presented at the 2010 National Communication Association Annual Convention. The authors thank G. Mitchell Reyes for reading and commenting on drafts as well as Argumentation and Advocacy's Editor and three anonymous reviewers for their insightful feedback. Address correspondence to Kundai Chirindo, Rhetoric and Media Studies, Lewis & Clark College, 0615 S.W. Palatine Hill Road, Portland, Oregon 97219-7899. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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|Author:||Chirindo, Kundai; Neville-Shepard, Ryan|
|Publication:||Argumentation and Advocacy|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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