Obama’s Inaugural Address: the Use of Rhetoric

Christopher Witt —  January 21, 2013

I was not overly impressed with Obama’s first inaugural address four years ago. And I thought both his acceptance speech at last year’s Democratic National Convention and his election night acceptance speech were somewhat weak. So I lowered my expectations for his second inaugural address. But I was pleasantly surprised.

All in all, I think the President gave a fine speech.

It was less than 20 minutes long, which is a good thing. (To quote Lord Brabazon, the pioneering British aviator, “If you cannot say what have to say in twenty minutes, you should go away and write a book about it.”)

It had a clear focus and a central theme: “We, the people…”

It was dignified. It presented a hopeful vision of the future and of the task at hand. And it was, from a rhetorical point of view, well crafted.

If you’re familiar with my writings, you know I have a fascination with rhetorical devices, with ways of phrasing a message that give it clarity and power. In future posts I’ll examine several of the rhetorical devices that Obama made use of, but for now I want to focus on just one example.

In a single clause Obama (or his speechwriters) used six rhetorical devices.

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall…”

  1. The entire first half of the clause is an extended allusion (a reference to a person, place, or thing in history, literature, or folklore that summarizes or evokes broad, complex ideas or emotions).
    In this case Obama is alluding to the country’s two founding documents. The first words of the Constitution are “We, the people…” And the Declaration of Independence begins with the need to “declare the causes” for independence, a statement that introduces the document’s most quoted line: “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.”
  2. “The star that guides us still” is a second allusion (to the star that guided the wise men to the manager where Jesus lay).
  3. The same phrase is also, with its four s sounds, an example of consonance (the repetition of the same consonant two or more times in quick succession).
  4. “Through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” is, likewise, a use of consonance.
  5. The same phrase is an example of polysyndeton (the use of a conjunction [“and”] between each word in a phrase to give a sense of piling on or building up power)
  6. And each of the three locations is a metonymy (a type of metaphor, in which a particular thing represents a larger concept).
    Seneca Falls stands for the struggle for women’s equality. (One of the earliest conventions in United States concerned with women’s rights was held in Seneca Falls, New York.)
    Selma represents the struggle for racial equality. (There were three marches in 1965 from Selma, Alabama to the state capital to secure voting rights for African-Americans.)
    And Stonewall represents the struggle for gay and lesbian equality. (When police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, in 1969, demonstrations broke out in response.)

The point of using rhetorical devices isn’t to call attention to the devices or to show how clever you are for using them. The point is to make your message powerful, compelling, and memorable. Kudos to Obama for using them. And best wishes for the next four years.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

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