Sunday, February 15, 2009

Evoking Lincoln: President Barack Obama's Inauguration Speech

On the afternoon of January 20th, 2009, the 44th President of the United States was sworn in at the Capitol in Washington, DC, and began his service to a nation in the crux of an economic downturn, in the brunt of a war overseas, and in a time of polarizing and crippling bipartisanship in politics and between fellow citizens. Barack Hussein Obama was now the first African-American man to hold this highest of office, and after taking the oath on the same bible used in 1861 by President Lincoln, President Obama stepped up to the podium to deliver his inauguration speech, arguably one of the more historically significant inauguration speeches ever delivered. As millions all over the world watched from television sets and Internet streaming videos and listened in on radios, President Obama went about “holding an inauguration that celebrate[d] America’s unity”[1], keeping the lessons and ethos of former president Lincoln in the back of his mind. With his modesty, his call to action of all citizens, and his stoic grace, President Obama sought to usher in a new era for the United States. I will explore Obama’s inauguration speech through the lens of neo-Aristotelian criticism in comparison to President Lincoln’s second inaugural addresses in the hopes of further exemplifying the validity, appropriateness and power behind his chosen Lincoln-esque rhetoric.

The transcript and videos of Obama’s speech can be found on a number of websites, but I chose to reference The New York Times online transcription as well as the accompanying 19 minute- and 23 second-long video of the speech. Through the canons of invention and style I hope to illustrate the effectiveness and necessity for Obama’s chosen rhetoric as modeled after The Great Unifier himself.

President Obama’s speechwriters relied on invention in the form of the internal proofs, primarily employing pathos. Through the use of simplistic language to which men and women of any educational background can relate, President Obama used many of his words to reiterate the concepts that helped found our nation while evoking Lincoln’s unification pathos: by employing inclusive phrases such as “all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance”, and “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off” [2], Obama was not just talking to the Democrats who elected him in to office; he was indeed addressing an entire people, an entire nations of citizens, including himself. Much like when Lincoln asserted, “with charity toward all…let us strive on to finish the work we are in”[3], Obama used inclusive language to evoke emotions and oneness within the American people. And utilizing juxtaposing language such as “still waters of peace” next to “gathering clouds and raging storms”[4], Obama created stirring metaphors in the mind of his audience, images that clearly personify the fluctuating state of our nation over the past 8 years, and indeed its entire short history.

President Obama also employed ethos by remaining dignified and true of character throughout his speech, graciously thanking former President Bush “for his service to our nation” and his “cooperation…throughout this transition” [5]. He also made subtle attacks at the previous administration, citing a “consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some” but also acknowledging that everyone in Washington has been responsible for this “collective failure to make hard choices”, never entirely laying all the blame on the former president’s actions[6]. Much like when Lincoln stated that “both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish”[7], President Obama focused on the actions and faults of both parties when it came to making difficult decisions in the past.

The style of language employed by President Obama was not as poetic as some may have expected: Frank Rich, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, noted that he “did not offer his patented poetry” [8] while the Associated Press encouraged Obama days before his speech “Enough with the inspiration already. Now it’s time to get down to work.” [9] While several have stated that Lincoln’s second inaugural speech was in fact quite floral – American writer and editor Carl Sandburg called it “the great American poem” [10] – it was also far shorter than his first address and immediately commented on the current state of the nation. Obama approached the podium on the day of his inauguration with the same objective, knowing well that the country needed to hear “just the facts” [11]. With references to the economic condition, the housing crisis, the wars overseas, and the threat of a warming planet, President Obama did not resort to dusty inspirational campaign rhetoric but instead employed the language of a motivator, the strong language of someone who will indeed complete this new task. As Obama set his sights on “those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents”, he strongly reminded our enemies they “cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you” [12], emphasizing his somber approach to the change that needs to occur in this country.

Insistent on speaking to every single American, President Obama’s inauguration speech addressed prevailing international tensions and socioeconomic conditions on the home front, drawing some parallels from the style, ethos and pathos of Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Effective even on its own, without the comparison to Lincoln, President Obama was able to employ emotional significance while also addressing the necessary steps it will take for the United States to rise to greatness once more. Calling his audience of millions to action while assuring them all that change, progress and unity is a possibility, President Obama summed up his speech by evoking the father of our nation, George Washington, effectively incorporating a remembrance of the past, a nod to the present, and a foresight into the future.

Works Cited
[1] President Inaugural Committee Executive Director Emmett Beliveau quoted in Weiner, Rachel, “Obama: Lincoln Bible for Inauguration,” The Huffington Post, 23 December 2008, Politics Section,
[2] Obama, Barack H. “Presidential Inauguration Speech.” The Lincoln Memorial, The National Mall, Washington, DC, 20 January 2009. (Italics added by author for emphasis).
[3] Lincoln, Abraham. “Second Presidential Inauguration Speech.” The Capitol Grounds, Washinton, DC, 4 March 1865. (Italics added by author for emphasis).
[4] Obama.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Lincoln.
[8] Rich, Frank, “No Time for Poetry,” The New York Times, 24 January 2009, Editorial Section,
[9] Daniel, Douglass K., “Speech advice for Obama,” Associated Press, 16 January 2009, The Edge.
[10] Byrd, Max, “The Great American Sermon,” The New York Times, 10 February 2002, Books Section,
[11] Daniel.
[12] Obama.

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