A Critique of President Obama’s First Inaugural Address

President Obama’s historic inaugural speech on20th January, 2009was powerful and persuasive.  Coming at a time when the nation was confronting the worst economic slump in seventy years, the speech contained within it the necessary reassurance and the promise of change that were so desperately needed.  To his credit, the new President was mild in his criticism of his predecessor George W. Bush.  To the contrary, the speech appeared to focus on the progress and prosperity in the years ahead rather than point finger at the perpetrators of the present state of chaos.  In the very beginning of his address, President Obama displays this forgiving attitude when he said “I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition”.

The other discernible quality of the speech is its minimal rhetoric.  President Obama, having spent close to two years on the campaign trail – initially for the primaries and later for the Presidency – might have been excused if he had resorted to the usual rhetorical flourishes.  Breaking away from this tendency, the speech focused more on substance than style.  The speech is also informed by historical context.  For example, toward the beginning of the address, President Obama says “Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms…We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans”.  This passage perfectly illustrates how the new President weaved aspects of the past and present in revealing his vision for the country’s future.  The usage of the phrase ‘We the people’ is a particularly clever implementation, for it connects the present historic moment to the event of the Declaration of Independence nearly three centuries ago.

On the flip side, one could argue that the inaugural address was not the most inspiring speech Mr. Obama had delivered in his political life.  The speech that he gave in the 2004 Democratic convention brought him widespread attention.  The force and spirit of that landmark speech is not matched in the inaugural address.  Probably, the gravity of the current economic crisis and the restraint of high office might have had a subduing effect.  On the positive side, the speech was delivered at the right pace, giving time for the audience to assimilate the message and uses easily understandable language.  This brings us to the other important aspect of the speech, namely, its colloquialism.  For example, the often quoted line “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off” might lack in poetic appeal, but it succeeds in reassuring a highly insecure citizenry that has been unwillingly made to bear the costs of the disastrousIraqwar and the collapse of financial markets.

Repetitions of phrases, if employed correctly, can enhance the effectiveness of a speech.  This was carried out successfully by President Obama on a few occasions during his address.  The following passage is a typical example:  “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.”  Not only are the sentences clear and forceful but also indicate an air of erudition and sensitivity.

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