The Rhetoric of President Obama's Inauguration Speech


In keeping with Obama's usual style, his inaugural address made effective use of rhetorical devices and figures of speech.


He employed metaphor in reminding listeners that some inaugurations have occurred during "still waters," while others occurred in "raging storms."  Similarly, he spoke of the "long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom."


Parallel structure appeared in numerous phrases, such as the statement that "all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."  Later, he observed incisively that  "Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. . . .  Our capacity remains undiminished."


Obama used antethesis to highlight the country's best values in saying that our economy depends "not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity . . . ."  He also used that device to warn world leaders that "your people will judge you on what you can build, not on what you destroy."


Allusion appeared in a call to the nation to set aside "childish things," evoking Chapter 13 of Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians. In the line about meeting danger in the depth of winter, Obama quoted Thomas Paine's Crisis Paper No. 1, as read to rdespondent evolutionary troops by George Washington.  And the mention of the "long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom" applied on it face to the entire country, but it may also refer to the path followed by African-Americans in their march out of oppression, memorialized in the Negro National Anthem.


Some of Obama's language appealed especially to the ear, as when he used anaphora in repeating the first words of these sentences: "So it has been.  So it must be . . . . "  Later, he used epistrophe in repeating final words: "Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new  . . . . "  Another appeal to the ear appeared in the alliterative sentence, "This is the price and promise of citizenship."


Obama also followed Strunk and White's advice to prefer the specific over the general and the concrete over the abstract when he told of "a small band of patriots huddled . . . by an icy river," of later immigrants who "toiled in sweatshops," and of firefighters in a "stairway filled with smoke."


Obama did violate George Orwell's guideline to avoid clichés when he said "we must pick ourselves up [and] dust ourselves off . . . ."  Homer nods.


For me, one affecting passage was Obama's reminder that, although we are in difficult economic times, "Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began.  Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed . . . ."


Which of the speech's phrases will be repeated for years to come?   It's hard to say at this point whether any will reach that status. 


It was a challenging speech, reminding listeners that we face difficult times, but calling us to face "icy currents" bravely.   It was also a healing speech, embracing persons of different backgrounds and religions in the U.S. and elsewhere.  Its appeal to transcend the divisiveness of the past may turn out to be the speech's most enduring legacy.


                                      --The Word Aficionado