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A Critique of President Obama’s First Inaugural Address Essay

President Obama’s historic inaugural speech on20th January, 2009was powerful and persuasive. Coming at a time when the nation was confronting the worst economic slump in seventy years, the speech contained within it the necessary reassurance and the promise of change that were so desperately needed. To his credit, the new President was mild in his criticism of his predecessor George W. Bush. To the contrary, the speech appeared to focus on the progress and prosperity in the years ahead rather than point finger at the perpetrators of the present state of chaos. In the very beginning of his address, President Obama displays this forgiving attitude when he said “I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition”.

The other discernible quality of the speech is its minimal rhetoric. President Obama, having spent close to two years on the campaign trail – initially for the primaries and later for the Presidency – might have been excused if he had resorted to the usual rhetorical flourishes. Breaking away from this tendency, the speech focused more on substance than style. The speech is also informed by historical context. For example, toward the beginning of the address, President Obama says “Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. 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…We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans”. This passage perfectly illustrates how the new President weaved aspects of the past and present in revealing his vision for the country’s future. The usage of the phrase ‘We the people’ is a particularly clever implementation, for it connects the present historic moment to the event of the Declaration of Independence nearly three centuries ago.

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On the flip side, one could argue that the inaugural address was not the most inspiring speech Mr. Obama had delivered in his political life. The speech that he gave in the 2004 Democratic convention brought him widespread attention. The force and spirit of that landmark speech is not matched in the inaugural address. Probably, the gravity of the current economic crisis and the restraint of high office might have had a subduing effect. On the positive side, the speech was delivered at the right pace, giving time for the audience to assimilate the message and uses easily understandable language. This brings us to the other important aspect of the speech, namely, its colloquialism. For example, the often quoted line “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off” might lack in poetic appeal, but it succeeds in reassuring a highly insecure citizenry that has been unwillingly made to bear the costs of the disastrousIraqwar and the collapse of financial markets.

Repetitions of phrases, if employed correctly, can enhance the effectiveness of a speech. This was carried out successfully by President Obama on a few occasions during his address. The following passage is a typical example: “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.” Not only are the sentences clear and forceful but also indicate an air of erudition and sensitivity.

The speech is also devoid of any exuberant linguistic flourishes. Of all the public addresses that a President delivers during his tenure, the inaugural one is deemed the most significant, in that it sets the short and long term vision for his Administration. The inaugural addresses were also of interest to students of history and political science as instances of oratorical excellence and eloquence. Seen in this light, Barack Obama’s address will not be remembered the same way as some of other landmark inaugural addresses in American history. For example, President Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address was unique in the way it inspired and united an erstwhile polarized citizenry. The same could not be said of the Obama address, although the similarities in the economic realm of the early 1930s and 2009 are very striking.

President Obama’s attempt to unite the polarized electorate is evident from his religious references. For instance, he said that “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.” Irrespective of the Democrats’ liberal stand on the issue of abortion, the President has tried hard to convince his detractors that his mandate is to represent all Americans. The use of words such as ‘scripture’, ‘god’, etc hold an emotional appeal to conservative Americans, whose trust and confidence the new President is trying to win over. It is in the same spirit of unity that he uttered the following words in support of the liberal agenda: “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. 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.” What is to be appreciated here is the new President’s calm and collected application of rational argument in support of the Democratic Party’s view of public administration and governance. Given the overwhelming majority with which he won the elections, he could have easily gotten carried away and overstated the case. It is a testimony to Obama’s balance of mind that the inaugural address was delivered in an understated yet clear tone.

In sum, President Barack Obama’s inaugural address has more merits than flaws. While it may not stand out as the most inspiring Presidential address in recent years, its underlying tone of reconciliation with history and its endeavor to pull together a nation of diverse peoples is undeniable. In this context, it would be apt to conclude this critique by quoting this message of conciliation and moderation from the new President: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. 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.”

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