A president’s inauguration address can indicate his vision for his next term, rally the country, and make his play for the history books. President Obama’s speech had no soaring JFK moments (“Ask not what your country can do for you. . . .”) and even extracting significant lines to discuss was rather difficult. The speech was unified by a “journey” metaphor and by repeating “we, the people.” The president brought God into the climate change debate (he referred to God quite a bit, actually, mostly to his advantage), upheld the role of government as a collective entity of the people, made gay rights a part of our civil religion, and alluded to gun control without mentioning it in terms of “the safety of our children.” What follows after the jump are some excerpts, a link to the whole speech, and a rhetorical analysis of its style. Excerpts from Obama’s Second Inaugural Address:
Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.”. . .
“Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.
Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.
Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.” . . . .
Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.
But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.. . . .
We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries — we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared. . . .
It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.
Sam Leith (no relation) of the London Guardian offers an analysis of the speech in terms of classical rhetoric:
At a sentence-by-sentence level, it was filled with a device to which Obama is practically addicted: syntheton. That is, never say one thing when you can inflate the sentence with two: “effort and determination”, “passion and dedication”, “security and dignity”, “hazards and misfortune”, “initiative and enterprise”, “fascism or communism”, “muskets and militia” and so, unceasingly, on.
At the larger level of organisation we were seeing some other old favourites – in particular anaphora, where a phrase is repeated at the beginning of successive sentences. This speech was an anaphoric relay race: “Together, we” gave way to “We, the people”, which temporarily ceded the track to “Our journey is not complete until”, before “You and I, as citizens” staggered to the tape with the baton.
Also on show was his nifty way of shifting timescale, zipping between the grand sweep of history and the individual moment. “It will be up to those who stand here in four years, and 40 years, and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.” That climax – the rising series of terms, given extra force with epistrophe (repeating “years”) – is saved from bombast by bringing it down to a moment in history. “Spare” is a lovely touch.
As far as the ethos appeal goes – that is, the way an orator positions himself with the audience – Obama stuck to what he does best: aligning himself with the founding fathers and with Martin Luther King. The former was, well, pro forma, and given that the inauguration coincided with King’s birthday, the latter perhaps irresistible.
The former was accomplished by what may have been his number one soundbite: that none-too-subtle repetition of the phrase that opens the US constitution: “We, the people.” He added his own tricolon to that of the Declaration of Independence when he declared it “our generation’s task to make these words, these rights, these values – of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – real”. He ghosted liberty’s “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” when he invoked “the poor, the sick, the marginalised”. Tick, tick, tick.