Barack Obama’s 12 most memorable speeches; KU expert discusses outgoing president’s rhetorical legacy

President Barack Obama gives remarks on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015 at Anschutz Pavilion on the campus of Kansas University in Lawrence, Kan. President Obama visited Lawrence to outline some of his themes delivered during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 20.

University of Kansas professor of communication studies Robert “Robin” Rowland has had his eye — or rather his ear — on President Barack Obama since 2004.

Obama, then a state senator, gave a “transformational” speech at that year’s Democratic National Convention in which he said there were no red states or blue states, just the United States of America, Rowland said. Rowland said eloquently continuing that theme in his public speeches helped Obama win the presidency and continued throughout his eight years in office.

“We get somebody with Obama’s set of rhetorical skills about once a generation,” Rowland said. “President Obama is a skillful deliverer of a speech, but what makes him stand out is what he has to say.”

As Obama prepares to deliver his final address, scheduled for Tuesday, Rowland complied a list of the outgoing president’s greatest hits, rhetorically speaking.

“It’s not hard to find memorable things that President Obama has said,” Rowland said.

Robert Rowland, University of Kansas professor of communications studies.

Rowland has studied presidential rhetoric, or using language or other images to send a message, for two decades. He has a couple of books on Obama in progress now.

Rowland also has studied and written a book on the rhetoric of President Ronald Reagan, who he cited as another rhetorical great of his generation. Both men had a way of creating a sense of shared identity with their audiences and continuing the same message — what we can do by working together — throughout their presidencies, Rowland said.

Obama’s speech at KU in January 2015 was not among his most important, Rowland said, but it was a prime example of how the president connects with his respective audiences. Obama mentioned all the right things for a KU crowd: his family’s Kansas roots and his appreciation of the KU men’s basketball team and coach Bill Self.

To be sure, Rowland said, not everything Obama has said has been successful, particularly on policies involving issues such as the Affordable Care Act or global warming.

“It’s just much harder to present a complicated message to the American people,” Rowland said. “Pick any of the important issues, they’re inherently complicated. And it’s easier for opponents to oversimplify it than it is for the president to explain them.”

Obama, however, will be better remembered for his usually inspirational speeches, Rowland said. Here are his 12 most important addresses, along with some key highlights, according to Rowland:

• July 27, 2004 — Democratic National Convention Speech in Boston, Mass.

• Jan. 8, 2008 — New Hampshire primary concession speech. Obama said, “In the unlikely story of America, there has never been anything false about hope,” and used the refrain “Yes, we can.”

• Jan. 12, 2011 — Speech in the aftermath of the mass shooting that injured U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords.

• Jan. 20, 2009 — First inauguration. Obama talks about “the winter of our sorrow” in a speech that was criticized at the time for its somber tone.

• Aug. 28, 2008 — Acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Rowland called it “the story of America gradually becoming more welcoming and inclusive … he talks about the evolution of the American dream.”

• March 18, 2008 — “A More Perfect Union” speech, also known as his “Race Speech.”

• March 7, 2015 — Civil rights march anniversary speech at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

• Jan. 5, 2016 — Anniversary speech regarding Newtown, Conn., school shooting. Obama, moved to tears, said, “Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” and called for action to control gun violence.

• June 26, 2015 — Mass shooting eulogy in Charleston, S.C. The president sang “Amazing Grace” to highlight his theme in the aftermath of a white supremacist’s shooting spree inside a black church.

• Jan. 20, 2013 — Second inaugural address. Obama talked about locations marking milestones in the fight for rights for women, black and LGBT people. “Lincoln’s is the only other second inaugural address that was better than the first,” Rowland said.

• Sept. 9, 2009 — Remarks on health care to joint session of Congress. A policy-oriented speech, including reading a letter from Sen. Edward Kennedy.

• Dec. 6, 2011 — Economic policy speech in Osawatomie, representing a political pivot. “He says everybody needs a fair shot, and everybody needs to pay their fair share,” Rowland said. “After his re-election, he drove a hard bargain and raised the top income tax bracket, and since then, income inequality has declined in this nation.”

Obama will deliver his farewell address at 8 p.m. CST Tuesday. It will air on several TV networks and will stream online at