Having completed the inaugural day festivities and surprising guests on White House tours, President Barack Obama will be heading back to the work of governing the country.
While he does so, we decided to take a look at many of the rhetorical strategies he employed in his inaugural address. Points of the speech are identified by times they occur in the video below.
Click here for the transcript of the speech.
I. Start slowly and with an increasingly broad audience. (0:56 to 1:08)
Obama has been compared to a preacher. He began his address as many preachers do by speaking slowly and gradually acknowledging the audiences to whom he was speaking. He started with his Vice President, moved to Chief Justice John Roberts and the members of Congress before turning to his fellow citizens. By doing this he respected the power of the political offices and made it clear that he is part of the citizenry.
II. Ground the address in the founding documents and religions and the promises they contain. (1:12 to 2:22)
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are arguably the most important documents in American political history. Obama explicitly drew on them when he read the opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence, spoke about the affirmation of the Constitution by holding the inauguration and repeatedly said, “We, the people,” which are the first words of the Constitution’s preamble. Obama also asserted the Americans’ allegiance to the idea of democracy makes us exceptional.
III. Insert religion into the speech. (2:47 to 2:53)
Although there is constitutionally-mandated separation of Church and State in the United States, political leaders of both stripes often ground their speeches in mentions of God at the beginning and ending of their addresses. Obama was no different, saying that freedom is a gift from God and closing by asking God to bless the people who attend and the country as a whole.
IV. Refer to political hero Abraham Lincoln. (3:10 to 3:16, 3:30 to 3:41)
Obama’s positive regard for the 16th President, another lawyer from Illinois, is no secret. In his address, he twice referred to him. First time alluded to closing of the Gettysburg Address, the second time he quoted directly from Lincoln’s 1858 House Divided speech, which he delivered at the Illinois State Capitol.
V. Place the current moment in an historic context and introduce a central metaphor. (3:24 to 4:26)
Obama placed the current moment in an historic context of Americans’ acting to make the promises of the nation real and meeting the challenges set before them. He talked about coming through the Civil War as a free nation, building a modern economy and deciding to care for the poor and vulnerable in the society. These are the earlier stages of the never-ending journey he describes. The image of the journey provided coherence for the earlier actions and set Obama up for his later assertion that the journey is an incomplete one.
VI. Emphasize the task’s collective nature. (4:47 to 5:41)
Obama did this in several different ways. He specifically said that preserving individual freedom takes collective action and said that the nation’s challenges can only be met if we act as one nation and one people.
VII. Use repetition.
This is another preacherly device that Obama used throughout his speech. He used “You and I” two times, “Together, we” three times, said “We, the people” four times and declared that our “Our journey is not yet complete” five times. These phrases reinforced the underlying message and built emotional momentum.
VIII. Dispute assumed contradictions. (8:24 to 8:53, 11:27 to 11:38)
Obama has done this throughout his career, perhaps most famously where he said in the 2004 Democratic National Convention that there are no blue or red states, but only the United States of America. Here he said that the nation does not have to choose between caring for the previous generation and investing in young people and that lasting security does not require perpetual war.
IX. Articulate a combination of beliefs and specific issues. (10:02 to 11:24)
This is a reciprocal process of pointing to specific issues like climate change with a statement of belief, in this case that we are have a responsibility to posterity. By talking about both Obama sought to avoid being overly technocratic and policy oriented on the one hand, and excessively ungrounded on the other.
X. Mention key social movements as an illustration of We the People. (13:46 to 14:23)
Obama made it clear that he considers people whose rights were not initially granted during the constitution an integral part of the people who have ennobled the nation through their struggles to have it be true to the common creed. This list includes the women’s rights supporters who gathered at Seneca Falls, the civil rights marchers who protested and were beaten in Selma, Alabama, and the gay and lesbian people who protested their abuse during the Stonewall riots in 1970. Obama also paid tribute to the ordinary people who participated in the March on Washington in 1963, specifically mentioning Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He used the same line about coming to hearing “a King” in his presidential announcement in February 2007.
XI. Build to an emotional crescendo and define the task of the moment. (14:30 to 16:16)
Obama started speaking with more energy and volume and emotional force as he progressed. By saying our journey is not complete, Obama asserted that there is still more work to be done that is our generation’s task. He said that it is our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began before identifying the specific tasks that need to be accomplished and then making the broader point that the ultimate goal is to make the rights and values that Jefferson articulated in the Declaration of Independence real for every American.
XII. Acknowledge humility. (17:13 to 17:38)
Obama says openly that the work will not be completed, but rather will be imperfect and taken up by subsequent generations. But it must be undertaken now.
XII. State the connection between his efforts and that of ordinary Americans. (17:44 to 18:28)
In addition to making it clear that he is also a citizen in his the opening of his address, Obama described the oath of office he had just taken as very similar to that of an immigrant taking an oath of citizenship-here he appeared to be signaling his commitment to immigration reform-a soldier enlisting in the army, or other Americans pledging allegiance to the flag.
XIV. Close with religion and country. (19:21 to 19:25)
It is a standard element of American political speeches to end by asking God to bless the people in attendance and the country as a whole.
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