Obama’s Second Inaugural Address

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.

Transcript And Audio: Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address : NPR.

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.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    He talked eloquently about a bunch of side issues, never getting around to The Most Important Issue molesting America: the budgetary train wreck comin’ down the track.

  • Grace

    Dr. Veith“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.”

    Mixing God with homosexuality (attain equality) shouldn’t be a surprise, when emulated from Obama’s lips.

    Obama“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.”

    Equal to what? Equality doesn’t mean that we sacrifice Biblical religious believes, ourselves and children to homosexual, same-sex-marriage. To do so, means that whatever laws are put into force, allows homosexual teachers to flaunt their lifestyle before our children and grandchildren. No longer are their views held at bay, they are free to teach and instruct children homosexual lifestyles, “gender identification” without parental consent- WHY? because they have been married –

    In essence they take sin, and make it legal to teach our youth.

    ObamaOur 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” should not include ‘illegal aliens’ who have lied and deceived, to sneak across our borders, bringing a heavy burden upon the American people, both to educate their children, and provide health care – FREE of CHARGE. We pay for their education, we pay for their health care, we pay, and pay and pay with TAX DOLLARS we don’t have, raising our taxes to support those who break the law?

    There are thousands upon thousands of people who believe in telling the truth when applying to immigrate to the U.S. they should be given priority, but that isn’t the case. I don’t “welcome” those who cheat and lie to come to the United States.

    All the great swelling words will not change the fact that this is not a “land of opportunity” for anyone, unless they are honest about their status, queing in line fairly, not pushing and shoving, to be FIRST.

    When a people believe they should be FIRST, DEMANDING, no matter how they break our laws, they are OPPORTUNISTS, they don’t deserve the “opportunity” they demand. I don’t care how young and bright they think they are – we as citizens, born and raised here, have no right to break the law, and neither do others have the right to lie and demand to break the laws of our country.

  • Grace

    Mike

    “He talked eloquently about a bunch of side issues, never getting around to The Most Important Issue molesting America: the budgetary train wreck comin’ down the track.”

    Yes, and it’s on HIGH SPEED – there will be nothing eloquent to say when this country’s footing, stumbles down the hillside, greased for the ocassion.

  • SKPeterson

    He’s going to be a good president and punt the fiscal disaster down the line and blame the opposition whenever possible. That is modern leadership without regards to party.

  • Julian

    Certainly not Lincoln’s second inaugural. Not going to be inscribed on some wall of some monument.

    On a completely unrelated note, Dr. Veith, two other blogs I frequent both posted a video of the interview of Rosaria Butterfield at Patrick Henry. Two things struck me:

    1. The interview was eye opening. Kudos to you and PHC for creating this forum.
    2. You pronounce your name “Veeth”. Who knew?

  • fjsteve

    SKP, yes, he’ll keep blaming the last administration.

    Oh, wait!

  • DonS

    This speech signaled what many have suspected — that Obama’s second term portends a sharp turn to the left. It’s interesting that there was almost no talk of our economy — the focus was on government programs. He claimed that we retain our skepticism of central government — I guess that was a reference to those of us on the right, because I haven’t seen any of that skepticism in him or his allies.

    The national debt, not including unfunded entitlement liabilities, will be in excess of $20 trillion when he leaves office. It was $10.6 trillion when he took office in 2009. That will be his legacy.


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