Monday, January 21, 2013

What Storms May Come: Teaching Obama's First Inaugural Address

This afternoon will be dedicated to wiping away my tears of pride and preparing my notes for tomorrow's lesson on the rhetoric, metaphors, and allusions of today's glorious inaugural speech. In the meantime, here's the lesson I taught four years ago:

President Barak Obama’s Inaugural Address
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

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.

[the parallel construction and rhythm of the above passage sets the beat for the entire speech and signals the three most important sentiments he wishes to convey for the tone of the speech: humble, grateful and mindful.]

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.

[This is incorrect. 43 have taken the oath. Grover Cleveland took it twice because there was another president in between his two terms. He was the 22nd and 24th president.]

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.

[“…still waters of peace”comes from Psalm 23, “…leadeth me beside still waters.”]

[“…gathering clouds and raging storms” is reminiscent of the sermons of John Newton, and as in Dickens and Shakespeare, natural forces such as storms and comets portend great change and upheaval. Think The Tempest, Henry IV, Part I, King Lear.]

[“…We the People” obviously comes from the Constitution and “…ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents” indicates that while we are a modern society with modern problems, we still look to our great leaders and documents for guidance.]

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

[Note the biblical cadence and phrasing of “So it has been,” which sounds like a proclomation, e.g. “And God said it was good.” Biblical language and cadence automatically elevates the gravity and tone of a speech.]

[This section is what’s called the ‘exhordium,’ the introduction of a speech, where one announces the subject and purpose of the discourse, and where one usually employs the persuasive appeal of ethos in order to establish credibility with the audience. This next section is the ‘narratio,’ the second part of a classical oration, following the introduction or exordium. The speaker here provides a narrative account of what has happened and generally explains the nature of the case.]

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.

[“That we are in the midst of a crisis is now well understood.” The syntax (word order) of this sentence is notable. Rather than go with the obvious syntax, “We understand that we are in the midst of a crisis,” Obama chooses to alter the sentence in order end on understanding rather than crisis, thus allowing the key word to be the last, and linger in the mind of the audience to set a tone. Frost does this in "Mending Wall" and, well, so does Yoda. And who doesn't take Yoda seriously?]

Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. 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.

[“Our…our…” The repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence (or line, in poetry) for emphasis is called ‘apostrope,’ a rhetorical device that allows for both the aforementioned emphasis, but also for rhythm.]

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, that the next generation must lower its sights.

[“indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics” sets up economic language, checked by sentiments of humanity such as “sapping of confidence across ourland; a nagging fear…” One counterbalances the other.]

[“America’s decline…” America is set up as a collective, anthromorphized being. More of this “we” and “our” stuff in order to bind together and build up a feeling of consensus.]

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.

[The language goes from complex and poetic to brief and simple in order to metaphorically reduce complex problems down to simple language. Such short statements also indicate decisiveness, repeated in the “They will be met” to punctuate the sentiment in meaning as well as form.]

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

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.

[Again with the anaphora – “On this day…on this day.”]

[“…hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord” is classic ‘antithesis,’ or the juxtaposition of two contrasting ideas, usually through parallel structure. This allows Obama to use the proximity of the contrasting ideas in order to highlight the contrasts inherent in the ideas.]

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.

[“…the time has come to set aside childish things” comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (13:11) “…when I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.”]

[“…our better history” echoes Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grade to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”]

[“…full measure of happiness” is an echo of the last line of the Gettysburg Address, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” The phrase ‘full measure’ can also be found in the Declaration of Independence.]

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts 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.

[I read somewhere that Obama has spoken out before on his dislike of hip-hop music and its obsession with the pursuit of riches and fame, but can't remember where. Nice little allusion to that idea here.]

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

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 Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.

[Again with the anaphora, “for us..” is repeated for the cadence, rhythm and emphasis of unity as a country and as a modern people indebted to their forebears.]

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

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. 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. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed.

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

[“Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began” is reminiscent of FDR’s first inaugural in 1933.]

[‘pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off…” ("and start all over again") is a reference to the 1936 Jerome Kern song from the depression-era film “Swing Time”indicating a parallel to the economic crisis of the depression and to the fact that it is up to us as a people to take our destiny in our own hands, to remain optimistic about the future.”]

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

The state of our 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. 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 costs. 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. All this we will do.

[The use of action verbs and reference to rebuilding strikes me as a reference to Reconstruction, but more simply, it’s a reference to all the work that is to be done and the action with which we as a country will get down to it.]

[Note also the anaphora in “we will” repeated, over and over, rising to the crescendo of “All this we can do. All this we will do” in simple, forceful language.]

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. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.

[…there are some here who question…who suggest…” this is a classic ‘refutatio’ or the section of a speech was devoted to answering the counterarguments of one's opponent.]

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. 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, 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. The 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; on the 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.

[…”To every willing heart” is from Ecclesiastes.]

[“…common defense” is from the preamble to the Constitution and signals a return to discussion of our forefathers.]

Our founding fathers faced with perils that 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.

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

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

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

We are the keepers of this legacy, 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'll begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard- earned peace in Afghanistan.

With old friends and former foes, we'll 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 that, "Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

[Slaughter of innocents is from the Bible, more biblical language]

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

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.

[“To the people of poor nations” is reminiscent of JFK: “to those people in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery…”]

And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the 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, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.
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. 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.
Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. 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. 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.

[“God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny” is reminiscent of Kennedy: “Here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”]

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 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day in remembrance of who we are and how far we have traveled. 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. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. 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."

[This passage above is from Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet “The Crisis,” famous for the line, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” George Washington had it read aloud to the troops.]

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words; with hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come; 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; 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.

[“…winter of our hardship” is much like Shakespeare’s words for Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent” and speaks to the metaphorical winter our country is enduring.]

[“…children’s children” comes from Psalm 103, verses 17-18, “But the loving kindness…righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember his precepts to do them.”]

[“…eyes fixed on the horizon” recalls the 1965 folk song “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”and the eponymous documentary aired on PBS in 1987 on the civil rights movement.]

[This last section of the speech is called the ‘peroration,’ and it employed appeals through pathos, and often included a summing up of the speech via many different rhetorical devices I won’t bore you with here.]

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.


  1. More teachers should be doing this. Thank you.

  2. Thank you - I learned a lot and will pass this along.