President Obama's Inauguration Speech: More Substance than Style
Prior to President Obama’s second inaugural speech, the media spent days, and even weeks, speculating on what the President would say and how he would say it. The airways were searing with questions such as “what does President Obama need to say” and how should he say it? Every person who was asked the questions gave an opinion. Some opinions focused on content and others on style. For example, some suggested that it should contain an olive branch extended to Republicans, and others suggested that it should be a barn-burner. Naturally some would say that it should be highly rhetorical, because he came to the presidency on the soaring wings of rhetoric. But the President fooled everybody. He took a path of his own, delivering a speech that focused on progressive political philosophy about how to make real the oft-quoted words in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain Unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” and on conservative political philosophy as the opposite.
The President couched the country’s efforts to achieve the reality of these words in the image of a continuing journey. “Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of these words with the realities of our time, for history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.” God’s gift of freedom, he continued, “must be secured by his people on earth.” He then said the patriots of 1776 gave us a republic—“a government of, by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.” The times of slavery and war taught the nation that a union founded on these principles could not survive half-slave and half-free, he continued. “So we made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.”
The President admitted that the words in the Declaration must be made reality in light of changing times and declared that the people of the present time are equal to the challenge. “My fellow Americans,” he said, “we are made for this moment, and we will seize it—so long as we seize it together.”
The President then launched into his five-point, “We, the people,” part of the speech. Summarized, they are (1) “We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” (2) “…that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity,” (3) …that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity,” (4) “…that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” and (5) “…that the most evident truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still.”
He then reminded this generation of Americans that their task is “to carry out what these pioneers began, for the journey is not complete until…”
As soon as the speech ended, pundits rushed in to analyze it. As expected, many Republicans saw it as the most partisan inaugural address ever delivered, and many Democrats saw it as an exceptional speech. In fact one presidential historian went so far as say that history will no doubt rate it one of the four or five best. However, it indeed lacked the soaring rhetoric employed in his speech on race, in his acceptance speech in Denver, and in his unforgettable election-night speech in Grant Park. Anybody who analyzes this inaugural speech must admit that it was more substance than style.
Substance may be defined as the quality or essence of the message, and, as I wrote in my book, Effective Preaching in the Postmodern World, style may be defined as “the manner or ways in which words are used, sentences are constructed, and paragraphs are formed…” to achieve clearness, force, and eloquence—or beauty.
To achieve clarity, I wrote, one must use words that are understandable to average people, express ideas in as few words as possible, employ words that sound together, and use specific words rather general words. In terms of sentence construction, one may need to avoid long, intricate, and complex sentences. And in terms of paragraphs, unity, coherence, and adequate development must be achieved.
To achieve force, one must use words in the same way that they are used to achieve clarity. Additionally, in sentence construction, important words are to be placed at the beginning and end of the sentence, items are to be arranged in logical order as well as in parallel form, repetition of words and ideas must be employed, and the active voice should be used. Other forceful elements are antithesis, conciseness, and figures of speech—metaphors, similes, and personifications.
To achieve elegance, four of the same elements used to achieve clearness and force are used—terms, arrangement, imaginary, and simplicity. Moreover, words are to be so arranged that there will not be a recurrence of the hissings sound—s, z, sh, and ch—and nor too frequent repetition of the same word in a sentence or paragraph. Additionally, the pronouns “it,” “that,” and “which,” and the preposition “of” should not be repeated too often in quick succession. Other stylistic elements that achieve force are alliteration and figures of speech.
President Obama did not ignore these elements in his inaugural speech. In fact, he used many of them, but, as Richard Tofel of The Huffington Post wrote, “The first big decision President Obama faced in crafting [the] speech…was how rhetorical he wanted it to be.”
Apparently the President decided that substance was more important than style. One case in point: He said, “Just as it (the Declaration of Independence) guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall…” Here he used the stylistic element, alliteration, but he used words that are not familiar to many people. Here substance towered over style.
Therefore, no eloquent lines, such as President John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” or President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” will be remembered, but the speech itself will continue to be analyzed in light of the current context—developing demographics, evolving values, and political philosophy.
Mario Cuomo may very well be right: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”