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Three Simple Words: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Slogan “Yes We Can”- Molly McGuire

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Three simple words can inspire a generation, unite a community, and change a nation. Three simple words can conjure up images of a multitude of movements. Three simple words can transcend cultural differences. These three simple words provided inspiration for the United Farm Workers movement, helped elect the first African American President of the United States of America, and permeated international politics. These three simple words are: “YES WE CAN!”

The slogan “Yes We Can” became nationally recognized in the United State during Barack Obama‟s 2008 campaign for president. The slogan did not originate when Barack Obama said it in his infamous “Yes We Can” speech, nor did its power and influence end on Election Day (November 4th 2008). The intercontinental recognition of this slogan and its different cultural significance is the reason why I choose to examine the slogan “Yes We Can”. I will focus on its importance in social movements, and its overlap among multiple social movements.

“Yes we can” was present in all facets of President Obama‟s presidential campaign. One could find this slogan in Obama‟s stump speeches, in viral videos online, in the campaign chum (pamphlets, yard signs, posters, and other goods), and the rhetoric of the campaign. This analysis will specifically focus on Obama‟s New Hampshire concession speech, Will.i.am’s YES WE CAN music video, the campaign chum, and the rhetoric of the Obama campaign. There will also be a brief overview of the use of this rhetoric pre- and post- Obama campaign.

The research question that I will approach in this analysis with is: To what extent if any did the use of the slogan Yes We Can in Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign have unintended consequences?

I will approach this research question from a historical approach. My first priority is to examine the origins of this slogan. With the origins established, the next crucial element of this analysis was finding the link between its origins and Obama‟s campaign. Observing the international spread of the slogan is the final step within this process. Throughout the analysis it is crucial to focus on the implications of the use of this slogan.

This analysis will follow the same organization that the research process took, in order to prove the following thesis: The use of the slogan “Yes We Can” in the Obama‟s 2008 presidential campaign had unintended political and international consequences.

“Si Se Puede”, Spanish for “Yes We Can”, was the first use of this slogan for a social movement. During the 2008 Hispanic appreciation month, Teresita Perez reflects on the history of the slogan for the Center for American Progress:

Sí se puede‟ is a term rooted in the struggle of working-class Latinos. It was the rallying cry of the United Farm Worker‟s Union in the 1970s. Co-founders Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez adopted the motto during a 25-day fast in Phoenix, Arizona where they were trying to organize farm workers to demand fair wages and better working conditions. This mantra was meant to galvanize workers and inspire them. Yes, we can start a movement against all odds. Yes, we can stand up against exploitation. Yes, we can fight for fair wages and medical and pension benefits.

“Si Se Puede” has been an integral part of the Latino social movements since Delores Huerta and Cesar Chavez first coined the slogan. In 2006 the US immigration reform protest rejuvenated the phrase in the Latino struggle. “Si Se Puede” continues to be chanted in social movement training sessions led by Delores Huerta and during protests by members of the Latino community.

In 2006, around the same time as the US immigration reform protests, Barack Obama adopted the English translation of “Si Se Puede” for his Senate campaign, but it never gained the popularity and strength that it would during his 2008 presidential campaign. Therefore, I will spend the majority of this analysis of this slogan focusing on its use during Obama‟s 2008 presidential campaign.

On February 2nd 2008, on the eve of the New Hampshire primaries, Obama re-introduced “Yes We Can” into the forefront of US American politics, political rhetoric, and social movements. In a speech filled with very strong and inspiring rhetoric, Obama‟s presidential campaign slogan was introduced:

For when we have faced down impossible odds; when we’ve been told that we’re not ready, or that we shouldn’t try, or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people.

Yes we can.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation. Yes we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights.

Yes we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness.

Yes we can.

It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballot; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Lands

Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can.

-Barack Obama, February 2nd 2008, New Hampshire

Obama knowingly “borrowed” this slogan from the United Farm Workers Union in a calculated attempt at gaining legitimacy among Hispanic voters in the primaries in Southwest states. The concept of borrowing legitimacy means that a social movement or a leader in a social movement will attempt to tie themselves to another social movement or organization that is successful in order to gain that success for their respective social movement.

“Si Se Puede” continues to be a very successful slogan for the Latino community, bringing better working environments for Hispanics through the dedication and perseverance of the United Farm Workers Union. Because of its success, this slogan resonates positively within their community. Since Barack Obama was having difficulty gaining votes in the Hispanic community during the primary elections the Obama campaign choose to associate themselves with the slogan “Si Se Puede” or “Yes We Can” in order to gain legitimacy within the community and hopefully gain more votes.

It is always a difficult decision to associate oneself with a specific group or social organization because it is impossible to predict the way in which audiences will respond to the association. While some in the audience will appreciate the cultural reference and respect demonstrated to the social organizations, others will find it insulting to use this association for political purposes. In this specific instance, the overwhelming majority of the Hispanic community had the latter response.

Roberto Lovato, contributing writer for the Huffington Post, responds to this precise dilemma in his article Basta Ya: Boycott Si Se Puede in Elections. Lovato says:

While it is true that the mainstreaming of „Si Se Puede‟ provides us with another signal of how the larger body politic is successfully adjusting to the death of the black-white electorate, this mainstreaming comes at a high cost: the cheapening of „Si Se Puede‟. To transform a term rooted historically in the salt of the earth struggles of working class Latinos in the campaigns of candidates who also repeat mantra-like the phrase “middle class” alters and diminishes the political value and movement power of „Si Se Puede‟.

Lovato is not the only one within the Hispanic community with this point of view. During the primaries Hispanics overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton. If one looks at the results from the primaries, Hillary Clinton won almost all of the states that had a significant Hispanic population including California, Texas, New Mexico, and Puerto Rico.

While some of the unintended consequences were negative, there were also a great many positive consequences from Obama embracing the slogan “Yes We Can”. Perhaps the most popular and easily recognizable consequence is will.i.am‟s inspiration for his music video “Yes We Can” in support for Barack Obama. One week after the New Hampshire primaries and Obama’s concession speech, will.i.am released the dipdive.com “Yes We Can” video. This video was spread across the Internet with a speed rarely seen, even in the Internet age. Along with this video, will.i.am released a statement (in his own style), which indicated how Barack Obama’s speech and the “Yes We Can” message inspired him:

but that speech…

it inspired me…

it inspired me to look inside myself and outwards towards the world…

it inspired me to want to change myself to better the world…

and take a “leap” towards change…

and hope that others become inspired to do the same…

change themselves..

change their greed…

change their fears…

and if we “change that”

“then hey”..

we got something right…???…

1 week later after the speech settled in me…

I began making this song…

I came up with the idea to turn his speech into a song…

because that speech effected and touched my inner core like nothing in a very long time…

it spoke to me…

because words and ideas are powerful…

I just wanted to add a melody to those words…

I wanted the inspiration that was bubbling inside me to take over…

so i let it..

Obama’s “Yes We Can” message inspired not only will.i.am, but also US American citizens around the nation. This inspiration is the reason why the country saw an unprecedented amount of people, young and old, rich and poor, black and white come out and volunteer for the Barack Obama campaign.

During my experience as a volunteer and field organizer for the Obama campaign, I found inspiration in Obama‟s message “Yes We Can”.   If I was working on less than two hours of sleep, if I had a really negative experience with a voter, or if I was at the point where I believed that we were fighting a losing battle I would remember the slogan, “Yes We Can”.

Perhaps Obama had intended for this slogan to inspire his volunteers, yet regardless of whether it was intended or not, this inspiration helped Obama enjoy a large victory over John McCain during the general elections.

By the end of the 2008 general elections, the slogan “Yes We Can” could be seen all across the nation. When you looked at the car next to you, chances are they had a bumper sticker exclaiming “Yes We Can”, or if you walked through a college dorm you would see posters reminding youth: yes they can make a difference if they go out and vote. Even though no matter which way you looked there were posters and bumper stickers adorned with “Yes We Can”, on an average day 15-20 community members would walk into an Obama campaign headquarters and ask for more Obama and see “Yes We Can” chum (bumper stickers, posters, yard signs, and more.)

Americans could not get enough of the slogan “Yes We Can”, and neither could the rest of the world. In fact, the Obama campaign created legitimacy for the phrase “Yes We Can” independent of its connection to “Si Se Puede”. In fact it seems as if there are a large amount of international organizations and political campaigns that are borrowing legitimacy from the Obama campaign by translating the slogan “Yes We Can” into their national language. While this is happening in many different forms of international organizations, the most predominant type of organizations that are borrowing legitimacy through the “Yes We Can” slogan are political campaigns. Both Italy and Israel embraced the phrase “Yes We Can” in their respective languages.

“Si Possiamo” is the Italian equivalent of “Yes We Can”. According to a November 28th, 2008 Jewish Chronicle article by Jay Bushinsky, “The president-elect’s slogan, ‘Yes, We Can,‟ was adopted with great relish by the leader of the Italian Democratic Party, Walter Veltroni, during his own bid for power in the Italian elections held in April; however, it did not work as well for him, as the coalition led by his rival, Berlusconi, is now governing Italy with a solid majority.”

Israel’s counterpart to “Yes We Can” is דחי לכונ חילצהל, “Together we can succeed”.

According to a November 14th, 2008 New York Times article: In Israel, „Yes we can, too‟: „Together we can succeed,‟ is the campaign slogan on the Netanyahu site, and it does echo, to some extent, Obama’s „Yes we can.‟ Sanilevich said the Netanyahu campaign plans to make use of Twitter, the mass text-messaging service that sends out short „tweets.‟

Upon examination of the slogan “Yes We Can” by multiple different social movements there are a few conclusions that can be drawn. First, when borrowing legitimacy from another movement, original supporters may not approve of an alternative use for the rhetoric from the original movement. Obama borrowed the slogan “Si Se Puede” from the United Farmer Workers in order to gain legitimacy in the Hispanic community; instead he lost support that he already had within that community. Secondly, while a slogan may work for one movement that does not mean that it will be equally as successful in a similar movement. “Yes We Can” was a very successful slogan for Barack Obama, except for in the Hispanic community, yet it was not successful for Netanyahu in Israel‟s election.

Obama‟s loss of votes in the Hispanic community, and Israel and Italy‟s use of “Yes We Can” in their elections are proof that: The use of the slogan “Yes We Can” in the Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign had unintended political and international consequences.

Works Cited

Bronner, Ethan, and Noam Cohen. “In Israel, ‘Yes we can, too’” The New York Times. 14 Nov. 2008. Web.

Lovato, Roberto. “Basta Ya: Boycott ?Si Se Puede” in Elections.” Web log post. The Huffington Post. 2 Mar. 2008. Web. 5 Dec. 2009.

Nicotra, Francesco. “The Italians think Obama is ‘Simpatico’” FIAF. Web.

Obama, Barack H. “New Hampshire Concession Speech.” Speech. Nashua, New Hampshire. 8 Jan. 2008. Northwest Progressive Institute. Web. <http://www.nwprogressive.org/weblog/2008/01/barack-obamas-speech-in-new-hampshire.html>.

Perez, Terisita. “?Sí Se Puede.? A Phrase with a Rich History.” Center for American Progress. Web. 13 Dec. 2009. <http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2008/09/si_se_puede.html>.

Will.i.am. “[Dipdive] Yes We Can Song Dip?finition.” [Dipdive] Yes We Can Song Home. Web. 5 Dec. 2009. <http://yeswecan.dipdive.com/biography/>.