Obama’s Inaugural Address 2009: Its Rhetoric, Rhythm, and Strategies

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Author: Adekola Taylor
June, 2015

Introduction

Politics is a skirmish for power to actualize specific economic, political and social ideas. It is imperative to know that language plays a crucial role in the process of politics particularly in the preparation, influence and accomplishment of every political action. It is evident that active politics cannot be devoid of the strategic use of language. Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address 2009 is a testimony to the importance of the strategic use of words to produce desired effects. Before going into the rhetoric, rhythm, and strategies of Obama’s Inaugual Address of 2009, let briefly go down the memory lane. Barack Obama in November 2008 emerged as the first African American president in the history of the United States. In the political and social arenas of the American society, his electoral victory was considered to be a leap forward. His victory consolidated the dream of Martin Luther King Jr., and millions of his fellow citizens.

However, since Martin Luther King Jr. assembled millions of people for nonviolent marching to Washington to campaign for the same rights for all races, a new generation of Americans has grown up. As a matter of fact, a few decades ago, the presidency of an African American person was a mirage; no one would have envisaged that one day a dark skinned man would become a president of the United States. Obama is well aware of this, and he said, “He is a son of a man who less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant” (Obama 2009). Undeviatingly, this essay is written to analyze Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, January, 2009 by focusing on its rhetoric, rhythm, and strategies through the instrumentality of various linguistic approaches. Considering the vast global and domestic importance of the Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address 2009, in the period of international economic upheaval, it is germane to decipher covert ideology enshrined in his speech.

The speech is analyzed by utilizing approaches such as critical theory, content analysis and discourse analysis. The sophisticated linguistic structure of different modi operandi lying in fields of rhetoric and semantics, embedded in Obama’s Inaugural speech in relation to strategic use of words to produce desired effects in the delivery of his message, is made obvious. The aspects of persuasive strategies, adopted in the speech as related to those dating back as long as Ancient Greece to historical discourses, are also discussed. According to Fairclough (1989), the ideas behind an analytical method include the linguistic explanation of the language text, the description of the association between the social processes and discursive processes, and the interpretation of the association between the text and the discursive processes.

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The Rhetoric and Rhythm


Undoubtedly, the use of rhetoric and rhythm contribute immensely to the delivery of the message in a most harmonious and effective way. The Ancient Greeks are noted for their didactic poetry in delivering instructions, because it is more simply remembered than prose. As a matter of fact, it is not difficult to play with words in poetry via the use their metaphors, phonetic features and sonic effects. In the following excerpt from the speech, a mark of a poem materializes from time to time, especially in the lyrical contexts and rhythm of the words associated to nature for description of practical and technological aims. The words are arranged in parallelism, sound like a piece of music, and are analogous both metrically and rhythmically:

    “We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.
    We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost.
    We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.
    And we will transform our schools, and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.
    All this we can do.” (Obama 2009)

Obama refuses to convey his message in a dry language of economists, and chooses to use the language of poets. The sun and winds are used to evoke man’s need for the energy needed to drive the economy. According to Hart (1997), an orator or a persuader can be compared with a poet being who is artistically creative. Both a persuader and an orator work with symbols to give life to their words and use their rich imaginations to engross their audiences’ imagination. The meaning of every sentence revolves around metaphors. In other words, every sentence is metaphorical and beyond the bare words. The use of parallelism is very discernible in the Obama’s speech. According to The Oxford Dictionary, parallelism is defined as a product of balance arrangement made possible via repetition of the same syntactic type.

In the text, both lexical and syntactic parallels can be found. Lexical parallelism is based on the effect of repetition of the same words or specific associations between words, mainly belonging to the same word collection, such as nouns or verbs. Rhetoric and poetry are referred to by scholars as outstanding examples of parallelism. The appeal to the listener’s emotions is rooted in both poetry and rhetoric. The effect of foregrounding, as an addition to parallelism, through the use of heading position and repetition of the phrase ‘for us’, is created. The association and repetition of the phrases “for us” and “they” cause the message of the passage more articulate. Everything “they did, they did “for us”. The use of the foregrounding here signifies the effort they bequeathed for “a future generation”.

    “For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across oceans in search of a new life.
    For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.
    For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.” (Obama 2009)

The Strategies

    “My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.” (Obama 1)

The open lines of the speech reveal a move from the mode of Bush that is characterized by multitudes of “my fellow Americans”. The form of the open lines of Obama’s speech can be seen as more all-encompassing, including all ethnicities and nationalities with a more citizen-centered perspective. The undertone of opening lines of the speech by President Obama vividly opens a new line of thought that citizenry is the keystone of the American republic, and that grass root diplomacy is deeply rooted in the American political system, rather than an elitist and exclusive system portrayed by the Bush’s style of speech.

    "For we know that our patchwork heritage is strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth. And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace. To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy." (Obama 2009)

Obama admits the presence of religious diversity and nonbelievers in America. In the same vein Obama speaks in auspicious terms about and to the Muslim world to embrace the social and religious diversity, which was subject to suppression under previous administrations. This is an indication of ideological shift from republican administration. In other words, it is a shift from a conservative and traditional view of the United States’ society to a more diverse and laissez-faire one.

    “We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift that the noble idea, passed from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” (Obama 2009)

It is crystal clear that the speech delivered by Obama has elements of Afro-American sermon, where rhythm transforms its pattern while the cogent notion is repeated. This Obama’s style of public performance can be compared with preaching that is distinctive of Afro-American preaching discourse. The implications of the choice of Scripture in the Obama’s speech are enormous, especially in a speech aimed at the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and non-believing Americans. The sentence, “the time has come to set aside childish things”, is coined from the “love chapter” in the Scripture, popularly read weddings. The chapter speaks about true love as follows:

    “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians, 13:4)
    “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians, 13:11)

The choice of this specific biblical reference can be viewed as an attempt by President Obama to spread the idealogy and notion of love. Through this notion of loving thy neighbor the American people can embrace an idea of racial inclusiveness and religious diversity, essential in the era of economic and international crises. Moreover, the president prefers to use word “scripture” rather than the Bible to avoid favouring one single religion. The word scripture is related to any religion in the world. Though the president cited the Bible, the values, he quotes, are universal.

Conclusion

Critically looking at the analysis of Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address 2009, it is evident that the speech was made by an adept orator, who embellished his speech with different rhetoric and linguistic devices, and strategies for the effectiveness of the address. One point that should not be underestimated is that the high level of education of the speaker was very helpful in setting diverse tools in collaboration, so that their usage produced the desired effects. Borrowing from Ancient Greeks, the President employs didactic poetry: convincing, easy-to-be remembered rhythmic and persuading style to deliver his address. It should be noted that didactic poetry is characterized by parallelism and repetition, which are the primary tools for creating an easily memorized message. Foregrounding effects are created in the speech through the use of personal pronouns. All these linguistic and rhetoric devices, and the strategies employed make the Obama’s Inaugural Address 2009 an exceptional speech delivered by a skillful orator.

Download: Barack Obama's Inaugural Address 2009 PDF

References

Fairclough, N. (1989). Language and power. London: Longman.

Hart, P. Roderick. (1997). Modern Rhetorical Criticism. Upper Saddle River: Allyn &Bacon A Pearson Education Company.

Obama, Barack. (20 Jan. 2009). Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address. The Inaugural Address, Washington, The Capitol, 20 Jan. The Washington Post.

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