One of the most significant tools in political communication is the use of public addresses and statements by the President of the United States. In addition to directly informing the public, Presidential addresses set the political agenda and put forward direct appeals to the American people. Throughout American history, Presidential speeches have focused on many different themes based on the mood of the public and the events occurring at both the national and international levels. One example of a particular type of Presidential address is the inaugural address. Since the creation of the office of the Presidency, the primary purpose of the inaugural address was to introduce the President to the American people and frame the underlying goals of the administration. The tones expressed in inaugural addresses have varied from inspirational to passionate, and reflect the overall attitudes of the American people. The use of distinct political communication concepts and theories can be used to analyze Presidential inaugural addresses and highlight their underlying messages.
One of the more notable Presidential inaugural address is Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural address. During the 2008 campaign, Obama focused on different rhetorical approaches such as thematic and policy appeals. Thematic appeals are developed by Presidential campaigns in order to explain the broader ideals that a candidate seeks to represent. Some of the thematic appeals used by Obama during the campaign included the need for unity in the face of increasing divisions within American society, the need to overcome both racial and political divides, and the necessity for political change. In addition to the thematic appeals, the Obama campaign focused on several different policy positions including healthcare reform, national security issues, education reform, and the economy. The use of specific thematic appeals and the focus on policy issues highlighted the key theme of change that the Obama campaign sought to promote. In this way, Obama framed his overall message to distinguish it from those of rival candidates such as Hillary Clinton and John McCain. The overall themes of the Obama Presidential campaign were carried over to the inaugural address and served as a way to frame the overall goals that his administration would seek to follow.
One of the main rhetorical approaches used by Barack Obama in his inaugural address is his use of optimistic language. Projecting an optimistic and positive tone during difficult times is an important communicative tool because it allows the speaker to impart a feeling of confidence and hope to their audience and create the impression that their actions will turn things around for the better. An example of a President presenting an optimistic message in their inaugural address was by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. In spite of the economic challenges facing America and the feeling of hopelessness felt by many, Roosevelt projected a sense of optimism by stating that the American people had “nothing to fear but fear itself” and by framing his speech in a way that projected the feeling that he understood the challenges and would seek to address them adequately. Much like Roosevelt, Obama attempted to project an optimistic tone in his inaugural address by stating that even though the problems facing the US will not be met easily, they will ultimately be addressed due to the resilience of the American people and due to the change in leadership as a result of his election.
Another rhetorical approach used in Obama’s 2009 inaugural speech is the call to action to address the economic crisis and to create a new foundation for future growth. Calling for action is important in any Presidential speech because it mobilizes public support for policy proposals and creates a higher level of support at the grassroots level to lead the charge for change. A notable example of a Presidential address that focused on the idea of calling for action to address the issues is John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961. In this speech, Kennedy stated the American people should, “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Through such language, Kennedy was saying that it is in the best interest of the American people to address the challenges of the 1960s and, by doing so, would create a shared sense of duty to the country. Similarly, Obama stated that the people who claimed that the US lacked the ability to tackle emerging challenges ignored the resolve of the American people and what they can accomplish with unity between them and a common goal.
Another notable aspect of Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural address was the fact that he was able to communicate two conflicting messages successfully. For example, Obama spoke of the fact that free market economic policies are a useful tool in creating prosperity and increasing individual freedom, but that it required a watchful eye to prevent its powers from spiraling out of control. Additionally, Obama explained that tough choices are necessary to address the problems at both the national and international level and also expressed optimism that the American people can and would solve such problems. Moreover, the language used by Obama in his speech created the impression that he is the type of leader who is not afraid to suggest that radical actions may be necessary to enact change and settle long-standing issues. It helps also that he is a mainstream and moderate political leader. By communicating two conflicting messages in his inaugural address, Obama is framing his ideas in ways that appeal to both people who supported him and reaching out to people who may be skeptical towards him or his policies. Additionally, by highlighting two contradictory values, Obama is attempting to create the perception that he is a political leader who would look to more pragmatic solutions to address the issues facing America. The idea of pragmatism was also expressed during the Obama campaign, in particular, his pledge to be an inclusive leader who would serve as a representative for all the American people in an uncertain time.
The Obama inauguration further appeals to traditional values. An important aspect of political communication is the promotion and highlighting of traditional values by political leaders. One of the most important traditional values prevalent in the US is religious faith and religious traditions. Furthermore, the debate over religion is significant within American political discussions. In his inaugural speech, Obama appealed to religious values by thanking God for giving him the opportunity to be President and mentioning that the US is a “nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” Additionally, Obama stated that religious traditions and diversity serve as a binding force within the US to strengthen American society, not divide it. The idea of religion as a unifying source within society further relates to the underlying campaign theme of Obama that cast himself as a unifying leader.
Barack Obama’s inaugural address also served as a way to reveal the oratorical qualities of Obama himself. During the speech, Obama utilizes language that can be considered to be formal, yet plain enough for the average person to understand. For example, Obama states the US “is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare our nation for a new age.” Through such language, Obama is stating clearly the problems facing the US in a way that can easily be understood by the American people. Additionally, Obama uses lofty rhetoric during the inaugural speech as well. An example of more formal and lofty rhetoric in the speech occurs when Obama states that “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.” The use of loftier rhetoric requires the listener to think more about the words to connect them to real-life events. Obama’s use of both formal and informal language is efficient because it enables his speech to have a poetic and rhythmic flow at the same time as allowing the average listener to understand the main points of the speech.
A number of symbolic themes also surrounded Obama’s inaugural address. The central symbolic aspect was that Obama’s inauguration served as a culmination of the ideas promoted by the Civil Rights movement and as a step forward for the American people. Additionally, the overarching theme of Obama’s inauguration was the idea of “a new birth of freedom,” which recognized the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. The idea of the “new birth of freedom” served as a symbol in promoting the idea that the struggles faced by African-Americans over the course of American history had finally come full circle. The media further supported this symbolism in Obama’s inauguration by highlighting the past accomplishment of past Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. Despite the media’s positive to Obama’s inauguration, some argue that the press ignored the continued racial inequalities within the US and attempted to frame Obama’s inauguration as the end to such disparities.
In conclusion, the Presidential inaugural address serves as a valuable tool in political communication. An analysis of Presidential inaugural addresses allows political scientists to understand better the underlying goals and ideas of the President and the ways in which he communicates such ideas to the American people. Throughout his 2009 inaugural address, Barack Obama touched upon numerous political communication concepts such as the use of an optimistic tone to build confidence in the American people, appealing to traditional values, and calling for action to enact political change. Additionally, the Obama inaugural address promoted the idea that the struggles of the Civil Rights movement finally came full circle within the American political system. The Obama inaugural address further served as a way to introduce the American public to a new President and set the overall tone of the Obama Administration.