What We Will Remember from Obama's 2009 Inaugural Address—A Commentary by Aaron Zelinsky ’10
The following commentary was posted on The Huffington Post on January 20, 2009.
What We Will Remember from Obama's 2009 Inaugural Address
By Aaron Zelinsky ’10
President Barack Obama's inaugural address was good, but not truly canonical. At 2,396 words, Obama's full speech was too cumbersome for the front row of history (for reference, Lincoln's Second Inaugural was 698 words; the Gettysburg Address was 278). Nevertheless, the inaugural address contained many passages that will enter into the mystic chords of memory.
Here are the ten lines we will remember:
1. "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. 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 forebears, and true to our founding documents."
This opening lines signal the key structural component of the inaugural which the pundits (myself included) failed to predict: This speech looks not to Lincoln, but to Washington. The key theme is not unity in a time of discord but triumph in a time of adversity. The Founding, not the Civil War, is the touchstone for this inaugural address.
2. "We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things."
Obama quotes 1 Corinthians 13:11, "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." These lines address both the country and the man speaking them: Obama is no longer campaigning, but governing, and with the Presidency come all the obligations and responsibilities of leadership. Interestingly, Obama also deviates from the traditional King James text, using "set aside" instead of "put aside."
3. "For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled 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 Sahn."
This exhibits Obama (and Lincoln's) favorite rhetorical device, the tricolon, three clearly definable clauses building to a strong finish. This tricolon combines with anaphora, the repetition of words at the beginning of specific clauses. The addition of Khe Sahn, a Vietnam War battle fought in 1968, is notable; in the annals of history Khe Sahn does not usually stand alongside Concord, Gettysburg, or Normandy. This is, perhaps, an oblique reference to the Iraq War: Soldiers' service in the name of their country is no less honorable because the war was a mistake.
4. "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. 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."
Obama reaffirms his faith in the American free market system, while noting the need for change. The final line is an example of the rhetorical device polyptoton, the use of the same word in varied forms. There are two prior famous uses of polyptoton in inaugural addresses: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" (FDR, 1933), and "Not as a call to battle, though embattled we are" (JFK, 1961).
5. "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."
This elegant phrase symbolizes a break with the Bush administration, and conveys the hope that America can remain true to its core beliefs while maintaining safety.
6. " [O]ur 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."
Here, Obama outlines a fundamental aspect of his vision for the source of American power: underlying commitments to fairness and justness supported by military strength. This idea of strength through prudence, example, and restraint echoes themes Professor Thomas Madden ascribes to the golden age of the Roman Empire.
7. "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers."
Although not rhetorically notable, this line is impressive in its inclusiveness. Previous paeans to America's diversity generally focus on the multitude of different God-fearing religions; rarely do they cast so inclusive a net.
8. "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."
Again, Obama signals a break from the past combined with a strong sense of purpose and resolve. There are two rhetorical devices employed here: First, apostrophe, the direct address of an individual, often one who is not present ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"). Second, Antithesis, the use of contrasting ideas in a parallel construction ("One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind").
9. "'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).' America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words."
Here, Obama quotes Thomas Paine's The Crisis, which George Washington ordered read to his men at Valley Forge. Obama uses Paine as a springboard for the most memorable phrase of the speech, "this winter of our hardship." This construction too had a noble history: Shakespeare's Richard III opens with a similar line, "Now is the winter of our discontent."
10. "With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come."
This is the peroration of the speech, the emotional close at the conclusion. Here, the ship of state sails on into the future, with an eye toward the challenges which await. These lines also recall the end of the Sermon on the Mount, as recounted in Matthew, where houses built on the firm foundations will survive the coming storms. Abraham Lincoln also referenced the Sermon in his second inaugural, exhorting the country "let us judge not, that we be not judged." The reference to storms ahead also links the final words of the speech back to the opening mention of "gathering clouds and raging storms."