29 January 2009

Rhetoric and imagery in President Obama’s inauguration speech

If the number of hits and emails are anything to go by, my earlier line-by-line analysis of rhetoric and imagery in Barack Obama’s victory speech in Chicago (originally published in the British weekly newspaper, the Independent on Sunday) attracted a good deal of interest.

In response to those who have asked for something similar on his inaugural address, here's the text of the speech with comments in italics just after the points to which they relate.

The earlier piece had some introductory background on the main rhetorical techniques. If you’re not familiar with them what follows might make more sense by looking here before reading on.

More detail on rhetorical techniques and imagery and how anyone can use them to get messages across effectively in any kind of speech or presentation can be found in my books (for details of which, see column on the left).

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.

3-part list.

I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

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.

Double conrast between rising tides and still waters and prosperity and peace, using sea imagery and alliteration.

Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.

Weater imagery to depict trouble ahead.

At these moments, America has carried on
not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office,
but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

Contrast with indirect references to declaration of independence and the US constitution.

So it has been.
So it must be with this generation of Americans.

Contrast between past and present.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood.

Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.
Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.

Homes have been lost;
jobs shed;
businesses shuttered.

3-part list.

Our health care is too costly;
our schools fail too many;
and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

3-part list.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics.
Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Contrast between measurable and not so measurable.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real.
They are serious
and they are many.

3-part list.

They will not be met easily
or in a short span of time.
But know this, America - they will be met.

The first burst of applause came after this second of two 3-part lists in a row – in which the third positive point also contrasts with the first two negative ones. Note also that the final item exploits the puzzle-solution format by getting the audience wondering what they’re going to have to know before he provides them with the solution to the puzzle.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear,
unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

Two contrasts.

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.

Repetition of first words of each line – ‘on this day’ – known as ‘anaphora’ in classical rhetoric.

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 noble idea, passed on 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.

Two 3-part lists, each of which with a third item longer than the first two.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given.
It must be earned.

Contrast with alliteration (g-g) in first part.

Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less.
It has not been the path for the faint-hearted –
for those who prefer leisure over work,
or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.

Imagery of a journey starts with 3-part list, which turns out to be the first part of a contrast in which the second part is another 3-part list.

Rather, it has been the risk-takers,
the doers,
the makers of things –

3-part list

some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
Contrast between famous and obscure continues journey imagery with alliteration – path/prosperity.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

Journey image now extended to refer to original immigrants to USA, with another alliterative ‘p-p’ clause.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West;
endured the lash of the whip
and plowed the hard earth.

Repetition of first words (‘anaphora’) and ‘lash of the whip’ image now includes slaves among immigrants.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Third ‘for us’ now extends the list of heroes to more periods of struggle on our behalf, revolution, civil war, second world war and Viet Nam, each identified with images of famous battles.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life.

Imagery of painful hard work and struggle (for us).

They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions;
greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

Two comparative contrasts, with a 3-part list in the second one.

This is the journey we continue today.
We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth.

P-p alliteration as he turns to speak about the present.

Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began.
Our minds are no less inventive,
our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year.

3 comparative sentences starting with ‘our’ (anaphora again), with third one ending in a 3-part list.

Our capacity remains undiminished.
But our time of standing pat,
of protecting narrow interests
and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed.

Contrast in which second part includes a 3-part list (with more p-p alliteration).

Starting today,
we must pick ourselves up,
dust ourselves off,
and begin again the work of remaking America.

3-part list with third item longer than the first two.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.

Puzzle to get people wondering what needs to be done

The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act –
not only to create new jobs,
but to lay a new foundation for growth.

First part of the Solution to the Puzzle ends with not only/but also contrast and starts with what turns out to be a sequence of repeated ‘we will…’ lines (i.e. more ‘anaphora’).

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.

Contrast between raising quality/lowering cost.

We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.

3 things will be harnessed.

And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

And 3 things will be improved.

All this we can do.
And all this we will do.

Contrast between what can be done and will be done.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.

Their memories are short.


For they have forgotten what this country has already done;
what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

Solution to puzzle explains why their memories are short.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them –

Ground-shifting imagery to refer to changing ideas.

that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works –

Question/puzzle formulated with a contrast between big and small that then contrasts with the third item.

whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage,
care they can afford,
a retirement that is dignified.

Question/puzzle elaborated with 3-part list.

Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward.
Where the answer is no, programs will end.

Contrast with anaphora.

And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account –
to spend wisely,
reform bad habits,
and do our business in the light of day –

3 things he’ll be accountable for, with daylight imagery to refer to openness.

because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.
Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill.
Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched,


but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

Spinning imagery and contrast between national and individual prosperity.

The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity;


on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart –
not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.


As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.

Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.

Writing image to refer to the US constitution; blood image to refer to changes from Civil War.

Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.

Lighting world imagery to say that US ideals are widely admired.

And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born:

Contrasting images of ‘grandest capitals’ and ‘small village’.

know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.

Contrast between first item and second two in a 3-part sequence.

They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.

Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use;
our security emanates from the justness of our cause,
the force of our example,
the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

Second part of contrast ends with 3-part list.

We are the keepers of this legacy.

Guardians/inheritance imagery.

Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater cooperation and understanding between nations.

We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan.

With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now

3 'we will' starts (anaphora) followed by puzzle (what is he going to say now?).

that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken;
you cannot outlast us,
and we will defeat you.

3-parted solution.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.


We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers.

Contrast between religious believers and non-believeers

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.

First in a sequence with repetitive starts (anaphora).

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.


To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,

3 unacceptable ways of holding power.

know that you are on the wrong side of history;

but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Contrast with imagery of shaking hands and unclenching fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish

p-p and f-f alliteration

and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.

3 water and feeding images.

And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect.

For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us,

Return to journey imagery from earlier in the speech implies he’s moving towards the end, or at least changing the subject.

we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains.

‘Desert’ and ‘mountain’ imagery used to refer to difficulties troops face in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.

Compares message from current troops with that from dead ones – referred to with image of whispers from the national cemetery.

We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service;


a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.

And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.

American people contrasted favourably with American government.

It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours.

It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Imagery used to provide examples of American people’s virtues.

Our challenges may be new.
The instruments with which we meet them may be new.
But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old.

Contrast between two new things and a third old thing.

These things are true.
They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.
What is demanded then is a return to these truths.
What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

Comparative contrast.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.
This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

3 repetitive starts (anaphora) ending with a contrast between negative status of a father being discriminated against 60 years ago and his son becoming president today.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled.

Return to earlier journey imagery implies he’s close to the end.

In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river.

Historical imagery that echoes water and weather images from start of speech confirms that he is indeed moving into the peroration.

The capital was abandoned.
The enemy was advancing.
The snow was stained with blood.

3-part list of images depicting threats and struggle during was of independence.

At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: "Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

Quotation from George Washington as first part of contrast between then and now.

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words.

Continuation of weather image.

With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.

Continuation of water and weather images.

Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested
we refused to let this journey end,
that we did not turn back
nor did we falter;

3-part list of what we did and didn’t do when tested.

and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Concludes with 3-part journey images (‘horizon’, ‘carried forth’ ,'delivered') of the destination.


Rachel said...

This is an interesting examination of the rhetoric and imagery used in this speech. It is quite alliterative in places--I think many commentators miss this.

Sal Pinto said...

Since Obama was inaugurated my opinion of him as a speaker has dwindled.

His increased use of the autocue has led to recent gaffes, see The Times "Autocue gremlins give Irish leader Brian Cowen the gift of the President’s gab" at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article5935117.ece. When he was on the campaign trail I think most of his speeches were learned.

He also appears to lean his head noticeably to his right. Fine as a listening pose, but during Gordon Brown's visit it seemed habitual.

Now that he is the encumbent he can be forgiven the autocue - more pressing calls on his time, but his head posture detracts from an otherwise superb stance.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this really helped with my English GCSE on this speech. You helped me understand where each technique is used so thank you.

jowdjbrown said...

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