Jan 23

Lessons from President Obama’s Inaugural Speech

Here’s the inaugural speech of President Obama. (Note: the full transcript is available below)

I don’t really want to say too much about it as a lot of people have given their two pence worth already. But I never want it to be said that the Pro Humorist didn’t chip in on this momentous occasion!

Repetitive phrase

Like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” phrase that repeats throughout that famous speech, Obama also has key phrases that he repeats during most of his speeches.

During the Presidential campaign we had the now famous “yes we can” and in this speech we had “for us”. Whilst only repeated three times it serves to act as a reminder phrase of for all those listening. It reminds them of all those unsung heroes who have worked over the years and fought and died in wars in help progress the American nation and the freedom of the people in the audience.

That said it wasn’t as powerful as his “yes we can”. Perhaps if he’d have repated it  for us a few more times it could’ve built to a rousing crescendo?

My Criticism of Obama… and Us

Dare I provide any criticisms for Obama at all? Well, plenty of people in the media already have. Many people hoped for an electrifying speech with grandiose rhetoric scaling the heights of Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you…” acceptance speech.

People have bemoaned the fact that there was now strong key phrase. There was no “Ask not…” “I have a dream…?” and so on. He gave us “yes we can” during his campaign but provided nothing after he was sworn in.

Personally, I think people have placed a lot of expectations on speeches of this nature. When the historical speeches have been made they were just written with passion and purpose. I don’t Martin Luther King ever sat down and thought “right, I have to write my equivalent of Kennedy’s “Ask not speech”. He wrote a speech that has meaning and passion to him. It was only retrospectively that we looked at it and realised how important and monumental it was.

I’m not saying that history will view Obama’s inaugural speech differently to how we’re viewing it now. What I’m saying is that we’re heaping too much pressure him to knock out memorable speeches every time.

Kennedy only had four memorable ones during his thousand days as President, but I’m pretty sure he gave more than four speeches.

We need to remember the fact that this President has already proved that he can clearly and brilliantly articulate himself… better than the last one. I cringed pretty much every time Bush spoke, whereas I always look forward to what Obama has to say. Whether he blows me away or not.

Here’s my main criticism of his speech…

The new President is an orator like Churchill, Kennedy and King before him and that’s great. It’s good to have someone who has intelligence, grace and emotion with the ability to articulate it.

But I do feel that he often only speaks on one note. Personally, I would like a bit more vocal variation with some light and shade in his speeches. It just makes it easier to listen and connect to and makes it feel like he’s one of us.

Audience Connection

Obama uses the words “we” and “us” to connect with his audience. He has been using this technique for at least four years. By using these words he is connecting his ideals to everyone listening making them all accountable for the change and progress that he feels America needs. It doesn’t just rest on his shoulders, but on the shoulders of every many, woman and child in the country.

Expanding on his ability to connect with his audience he also refers to countries that America is currently in conflict with using evocative imagery such as “…we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

He also includes countries and people that America is not at conflict with “and to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders”.

That’s what I think is brilliant about the man and his speechwriters – he always aims to talk to as man y people as he can. He addresses both Democrat and Republican, Rich and Poor, Black and White, Believer and non-believer.

There’s plenty of opportunity for giving us another powerful speech and I think it will happen when we least expect it to.

Sticking my humorist’s hat, on during his campaign, the President showed his ability at having a sense of humour and humility. I thought he was very funny on Letterman, Ellen and The Daily Show. I think it might be nice to have a little bit more of his humour I his speeches rather than the weighty somber nature that comes across most of the time.

The transcript is viewable with ipaper. This means you can view it on this blog right now, or download it as a PDF of Word doc to view on your computer later. If you’re having trouble viewing it you may need to down load Adobe’s free flashplayer.

President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Remarks on Jan. 20, 2009, At the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.


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  1. Freddie Daniells

    Hi JP: Nice new lick of paint round here!

    I’d like to comment on one aspect of his speech and your thoughts and this is the use of ‘us’ and ‘we’. I feel that by using this he lost the opportunity to connect as meaningfully as he might. ‘Us’ and ‘we’ can be quite non-specific, a kind of societal reference, that goes almost slightly against the very specific sense of personal responsibility that I think he was trying to espouse.

    If he had said ‘I’ and ‘you’ more, it would have been a much stronger appeal. Something like ‘I believe, like our forefathers, in the eternal values of responsibility, justice and hard work. And I intend to uphold these during my presidency. However, it is you who will make these a reality for our country. etc etc’. Does that make sense? Be interested in your thoughts. F

  2. Jason Peck

    Hi Freddie,

    Thanks for providing some useful insight, always welcome.

    Here’s the problem, as I see it, with President Obama’s use of the word “we” in his speeches. As you know, the word “we” is often used to refer to onself, which is frequently employed by people in high office such as Royalty. Hence we get the term “the Royal we”.

    This is problematic because, according to legend, this was used in place of “God and I”, making the monarch on a par with a deity. It would also seem that in these cases, the monarch would be referring to himself as a leader of a nation rather than as a person.

    Both with the word “we” and the word “us”, the President could almost be referring to the “we” or “us” of Government or political party. With lines such as “today I say to you that the challenges we face are real”. He could be referring to either “we” the nation or “we” the Government.

    If it’s “we” as in the Government then that could be problematic as the Government could be seen as being superior, or holier than thou. In my opnion coming across as holier than thou is not what Obama or his Government are about.

    When the word “we” gets used in the media, such as editors in newspapers, comentators give their opnion in a column and they cast themsleves as a sort of spokesman.

    Partly, I think a spokesman on behalf of the newspaper and its political leanings, but also partly cast in the role of spokesman on behalf of their readers. To a certain extent their readers can represent the wider peoples of the nation.

    I think perhaps this is what Obama is doing. He is trying to speak on behalf of all those who do not have a voice, or all those who feel like they have been deprived of certain priveleges and freedoms over the last eight years under the previous Government.

    The Bush Administration, and to a certain degree Blair’s cabinet, stopped listening to what the people wanted and acted upon what they thought was best for the people and the country. This even happened when there were friendly protests nationwide, and internationally, against the Iraq invasion in 2003.

    Using the word you in you-based question or statements work very well in connecting with an audience as we both know. You can make a statement about a certain idea in your life and ask the audience if they have ever experienced something similar to what you’re describing. You connect through commonality and build bridges with your audience in that way.

    It would seem that there is a reduced use of “you-based” sentences or “I-based” sentences because, in recent history, there has been a disconnect between what the government are doing and what the people want.

    There can be a tendancy to be quite directive with these words, for instance (and this is just to make my point) “I am telling you what you should do”. This seems what many politicians have implied in speeches in the past. Governments and politcians can put themselves on a pedestal with this sort of language and not necessarily practice what they preach. That’s where the disconnect comes in I think.

    By Obama using the words “we” and “us” he is attempting to include ALL of those who listen to his words and create a collective responsibility. That’s what it’s all about. We tend to think that because there is disconnect between us and the Government that we vote for, it’s up to them to sort out our problems.

    They have to fix the failing economy, when in reality the expression “the tragedy of the commons” applies. For instance, if one person leaves their television on standby they think “I’m only leaving that one appliance on, that can’t hurt”.

    But if everybody in the nation or industrialised world thought that way, that’s millions and millions people not taking responsibility for Global warming. It’s not only about being a representive of the disenfranchised voter, but also it’s about creating a collecitve responsibility to all those who went to the Poling booth.

    So I think perhaps keeping the use of “we” and us” is good, but I’m yet to decide on whether or not he should include more “you” and “I”…?

    I actually found this link: Socialized One of the things mentioned on that post is “to identify a speech given at a higher level, one that is not self-centered, simply count the number of times the word “I” is used vs. the number of times “we” occurs”. Worth a look.

    Thanks again Freddie

  3. Freddie Daniells

    Hi JP: Wow! Thanks for such a thoughtful comment! Really interesting. As the link on Socialized suggests, the ‘I have a dream’ speech is possibly the most famous speech of the past decade. And probably the most famous line from recent inaugural addresses is the ‘Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country’. I am certainly not against the use of we in that, as you suggest, has its inclusive element. However, I think that the ‘request’ statements about personal responsibility lose something by staying with this we format.

    Anyhow, on a difft subject, are you coming tomorrow evening? Or is it a GSS evening. Keep Feb 25th free as we have nother workshop coming up that you will really enjoy.



  4. Jason Peck

    Hi F

    No problem at all. I should just point out that the “I have a dream” speech isn’t from the past decade. As that would place it somewhere between 1999 and 2009. I’m sure that was a typo 😉

    You might be right about the “request” statements about personal responsibility. I think it’s also interesting that Abraham Lincoln used “we” several times in The Gettysburg Address;


    In answer to your other question sadly I cannot attend. What’s the other workshop I wonder…

  5. Jason Peck

    I’ve just found some interesting links about President Obama’s communication success at Nick Morgan’s blog. I think they tie in nicely to my post. Here are the series of posts:

    The Secret’s of President Obama’s Communication Success, part 1:

    Part 2:

    Part 3:

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