Obama’s inaugural: heavy on specifics, lean on stirring rhetoric

Although he became the first president to mention gay rights in an inaugural address, he could have done more to bridge the political divide.

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Inaugural addresses are usually more about tone than detail. However, in his second inaugural, President Obama casually and successfully presented both at once. This kind of rhetorical effort is especially effective for speeches about controversial initiatives; the comforting suggestion to the audience is that the unfamiliar is of a piece with what we already know—that everything new is old again. President Obama presented controversial ideas as merely a fresh tactic toward an old strategy.

He has good reason to believe this approach will work. When supporters hear new ideas set alongside unquestioned pillars of culture, as they did in this speech, they imagine those new ideas less as experiment and more as writ.

Casual listeners simply hear traditional language and assume that anything mixed in with it is also traditional, or at least widely accepted. The only people who would be put off by the content of this speech would be highly engaged listeners who are never going to agree with the speaker anyway.

Having presented his premise as the need for national accomplishment, and having done so in terms no one can argue with—who doesn’t want railroads, highways and schools?—he pivoted to a specific argument for a fairly specific kind of unified purpose, one that requires rules, regulation and protection from “life’s worst hazards and misfortune,” and “new responses to new challenges” cast as an alternate way to act on the principles of our founders.

Or, as a Reuters writer delicately put it, Obama spoke “in more specific terms than is customary.” And to make it go down well, he wrapped it in founders’ bunting.

The speech was smooth, and it may be effective in drawing some leverage. Time will tell. One thing is for sure, he left no doubt as to his intentions, and he burnished his reputation as, to borrow his campaign slogan, a “forward” rhetorician.

Was it a historic speech? In terms of language, there were a few notable moments and phrases; for instance, while eternal truths “may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing…”

Obama also became the first president to acknowledge in an inaugural address the struggle for gay rights. (He could have claimed that title with his Stonewall reference, which likely flew over the heads of most listeners, but he followed up with “gay brothers and sisters,” a rare bit of directness for any politician.) And he offered a nod to activist women, though likely caught only by women’s studies majors, a mention of Seneca Falls.

If the standard is rhetorical efficiency and political mood-setting, the president did a good job. It was nothing groundbreaking in terms of stirring rhetoric, but it was clear in purpose and the president left no doubt about his intentions.

Speeches that stand outside of history are a fortunate collision of circumstance and personality. Obama’s second inaugural could have been that, and here’s why. This president, so admired and openly beloved by so many, sets the political tone followed by much of his audience, more than any president in the modern age—that’s the personality. He lives in a time of profound political antipathy—that’s the circumstance.

Though he addressed the divide, he did so only in airy language; any listener was safe in believing the criticisms were meant only for the other side. President Obama missed an opportunity to transform the tone of discourse in a moment by doing what only he could do, and only with a speech: Call out and shame the extremists who now set the tone.

The missing lines, the ones that could have changed history by addressing our most pressing problem, would have gone something like this:

You on the right, stop questioning your fellow citizens’ motivations. They want the best for everyone, and they disagree with you only about how to best achieve it. And you on the left, stop trying to read your fellow citizens out of public discourse by isolation and ridicule. We will make progress when we treat each other as fellow citizens, not as gladiators to be vanquished. Our disagreements truly are among friends. And the first one to say, “But the other guy really is evil!”—that’s the first one we must stop listening to.

Frequent Ragan presenter Michael Long is a Washington. D.C.-based speechwriter and director of writing in the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University. He will be giving a pre-conference seminar at the upcoming Ragan Speechwriters and Executive Communicators Conference in March.

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