Sunday, January 27, 2013

President Obama's Inaugural Address, a New Rhetorical Strategy.

A presidential inaugural address is a ritual of transition linking past, present and future as well as a reflection on the people, the citizenry and national identity. That's at least according to Karlyn Campbell, and Kathleen Jamieson in their masterpiece on presidential speeches,.

Indeed, an inaugural speech always makes the link between the MYTHS OF ORIGIN (sacred texts like the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers, etc..) and present issues, in a light that will make the president's political agenda seem rooted in national mythology.

President Obama's second inaugural address is no exception but what makes each speech unique is the strategy used to make this link between ORIGIN and NOW credible and successful.


Very tellingly, Present Obama's speech starts with the first lines of the Declaration of Independence, and not with the words of the Constitution.
"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."
The Declaration of Independence is the founding text par excellence, particularly relevant when it comes to civil rights, equality and freedom if compared to the Constitution, which, after all, asserted that slaves would count for three-fifths of a person and denied women the right to vote.
As Michael Waldman, a former speechwriter for president Clinton, noticed  "The greatest progressive arguments throughout the country’s history have been rooted in the language of the Declaration of Independence. This speech was really rooted in that tradition" (WP blog)
From this point, the rest of the speech is about making a convincing link between today's issues and the Declaration of Independence. As James Fallows - also a former presidential speechwriter - observed, the following sentence is the summary of the whole:
Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time
Here we also have one of the key metaphors of the speech, quite often used in American presidential discourse, and particularly in Obama's addresses (see my post here): the journey metaphor.


One of the reasons the journey metaphor is a very common metaphor in American politics is that it is a concept at the heart of the mythical American historical experience: the voyage across the Atlantic, "the errand into the wilderness" of the Puritan discourse, or the historical frontier motif of settlers who traveled westward, and Obama makes this very clear:
It is now our generation's task to carry on what those pioneers began
Very conveniently for an inaugural speech, this metaphor also encapsulates two paradoxical notions: change (the realities of our time) and continuity (the meaning of those words). It is also an ongoing process and thus allows for the imperfections of reality for the time being.
For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.  
Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.  
Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.
This idea of process is also rendered by another metaphor: the nation as a building.
America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.
Because it is also an ongoing process, it makes the discrepancy between the professed American ideals (those words) and reality seem more bearable and acceptable. What could be seen - from a cynical perspective - as hypocrisy is turned into something positive, simply yet to finish.

The journey metaphor also gives sense to the need for individual differences, if not division, as long as we keep moving from the same point of origins towards the same ideals:
.... that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still..... It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time. 

A journey also implies movement - something in line with the American view that action is good and passivity is bad. This is also rooted in the Puritan discourse that exhorted people to action to assure their redemption, and America has seen itself as a "can-do" nation ever since. (Something one could see in the "Yes, I can" of Obama's first presidential campaign).
We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today's victories will be only partial. 
But, unlike simple movement, a journey implies a destination and so it is purposeful and directional. Because the point of origin and the goal is the same, the journey is essentially collective: 
preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.

Even if the journey is incomplete and somewhat uncertain, the president remind the American people that they can find comfort in their being on a mission: 
answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom
... and being a chosen people, akin to the Jews in the Old Testament: 
Freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.
Eventually, it is the American character that justifies confidence in the future: 
we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinventionwe are made for this moment, and we will seize it -- so long as we seize it together.
These are the tenets of American Exceptionalism - something that every modern U.S. president has expressed, by they Republican or Democrat. 


Alongside the notions of 'MISSION' and 'CHOSEN PEOPLE', comes a third christian concept - that of 'SACRIFICE'. 
By using the image of "Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword," president Obama refers directly to Lincoln's second Inaugural address, but instead of saying, as Lincoln did, that the civil War was God's punishment for the sin of slavery and calling for reconciliation, Obama uses this rhetoric to stress national renewal: 
Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.
Violence here is seen in a positive light, as an opportunity to start anew and move forward and it links modern nation formation to Christian martyrology. This idea is also made obvious in Obama's insistence that God's precious gift, (freedom in the president's own words) requires sacrifice:
Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty. The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who would do us harm
This too enables the president to bind together the idea of change and permanence. The lesson of the civil war was the renewal of the nation, so change is good, and change implies new action. It is part of the national mythology. 
As a result, the fights for civil liberty - Selma , Seneca Falls  and Stonewall -  are not liberal events but they are part of the American tradition. 
(NOTE: the reference to Stonewall has been given much attention by the media as the first reference to gay right history in a presidential inaugural speech. Jon Favreau, one of the main architect of the speech  said "The line about Stonewall and Selma and Seneca Falls was actually in the commencement speech he gave at Barnard [in 2012]. And so we brought it back for this because it hadn't gotten much attention at all." source Huffington Post. If nothing else, it shows that inaugural speeches are still relevant today when a president wants to get his message across). 

If blood and sacrifice may be needed, the need for change also means new policies:
enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.
We are here very far from Bush's War on Terror which implies the very opposite. 

Finally, as in any powerful speech, Obama's second Inaugural Address includes all the members of the nation in the ritual. By repeating "We, the people...", he is almost chanting, like a mantra, the words of the Constitution, thus sacralizing the people at the heart of American national experience, while at the same time legitimating his political agenda. 

The inclusion of the people goes even further by comparing the president's oath to every citizen's oath - that of a soldier, or an immigrant or every American's pledge to the flag, thus empowering the citizen as much as reming them of their obligation. In other words, the "WE, the people"... becomes the "You and I, as citizens" through the same oath to the nation, thus reinforcing the sense of national unity. 


President Obama's second Inaugural Address has cast his political agenda (climate change, equal rights for women and gays, immigration and voting reforms, market regulation) as part of the great American tradition rooted in the national mythology based on individual rights and collective action. 
In this respect on could say that Obama has used a strategy similar to that of Reagan in his first Inaugural Address. Contrary to his first Inaugural speech, president Obama did not offer bipartisanship. This time he laid out his agenda head on and did not hesitate to make direct response to the Republican political philosophy (by saying for instance, "The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.").   

As E.J. Dionne noted in his Washington Post Op-Ed:
Reagan used his first inaugural to make an unabashed case for conservatism. Conservatives who loved that Reagan speech are now criticizing Obama for emulating their hero and his bold defense of first principles.
Clearly, both Obama and Reagan's speeches are combative in tone and unapologetic, but more importantly, they use traditional American myths to make their polical agenda relevant. In this respect though, I would rather compare Obama's strategy to that of FDR who saw privileges and prejudice as threats to the American freedom, thus requiring collective action: 
Obama took the advice most notably offered in a much-discussed 2007 essay by Bill Galston for the Washington Monthly entitled “Taking Liberty,” urging progressives to reclaim the rhetoric and substance of their own championship of freedom as integral to the case for collective action through government. (Washington Monthly)
But of course, only history can tell.  

No comments: