Obama: The Lion in Winter

For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little – that’s how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children. We could change the world.
The Lion in Winter

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
President Barack Obama, Inaugural Address

President Obama
President Obama’s Inaugural Address was a measured speech, somber in places, hopeful in others. It was pragmatic and direct in addressing the current situation of the country he now leads. It was less ‘inspiring’ than many speeches he made during the campaign. He’s no longer auditioning for a role which now sits squarely on his shoulders.

On a freezing day in Washington DC, in front of a building constructed by black slaves, he took the Oath of Office and delivered a speech which, as anticipated, used many of the fundamentals of the art of rhetoric.

There was the simple tricolon:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.

and the tricolon with the third term doubled up:

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.

There was anaphora, the repetition of words at the start of neighboring clauses:

Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished.

and even more powerfully:

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died in places Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

There was ethos in establishing his bone fides, such as this, delivered on the steps of what remains the grandest of capitals:

from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born

delivered by a man

…whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

There was the logos of the argument, developed point-by-point:

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched. But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

And, time and again, there was pathos – establishing an emotional bond with a global audience (my 88-year-old father rang to tell me that, watching from his home in England, he had tears in his eyes):

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.

There was subtle alliteration:

Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions

There were words which soared to poetic heights, igniting the imagination with vivid imagery:

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.

and words which were delivered with short, sharp jabs, hitting home:

The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood.

There were passages that resonated with the references shared by all Americans:

With the Declaration of Independence:

What is demanded then is a return to these truths.

…all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

…but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

With Washington at Valley Forge:

…the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people.

With the Bible

…but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.

With hymns:

…who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

Even with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers:

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

Perhaps the most telling analysis of the speech are these snapshots of a Java-enabled ‘word tree’ of the speech showing the number of times Obama used “I”, “you”; “they” and “we”.

On the day he assumed the highest office in the land, the speech was far more about those he was elected to serve than he himself.

26 Comments so far
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Gosh, Ian. They teach things in the UK that I never dreamed of. Nice analysis!

Wow. Interesting stuff . . .I heard the speech 2.5 times and didn’t hear all that in it.

Superb analysis.Thank you.Your time has come!

Thank you for the reference to my post. You have a great analysis here! Impressed!

A nice visual interpretation of the speech from Brandy Agerbeck.

Excellent job deconstructing his speech.

I, like your father, was moved to tears several times throughout the Obama-fest, not only by his words, but by his being. He brings a new level of class to the office.

Thank you for your analysis. It has really helped my 10th grade English II classes with their own analysis. We are studying the art of rhetoric and are using this speech as part of the lesson. After completing their own analysis and break down of the speech, we looked at yours and compared it to theirs. Your analysis helped them to pick up on things they missed and to see another perspective. Thanks again!

I had to type an essay on Barack Obama’s rhetorical strategies used in his inauguration speech, and this helped A LOT! Thank you so much!

So… do you reckon he wrote it himself ? Or was it written for him ?


Here’s a list of annotated references to key phrases in the speech from his hometown newspaper – the Chicago Tribune.

Interesting stuff.

Thanks to Valerie for her mention of this posting in a great discussion of words that work.

Also to the UK Specialist Speakers for referencing American Speechwiter Ian Griffin – well, yes, I ‘spose I am a yank these days, but I was raised in Cheshire.

Thank you Ian for helping my with my thesis. I am a psychologist from Argentina. In my thesis on Persuasive Communication I am analyzing Obama’s and McCain’s Convention speeches. Did you hear that people are using Obama’s speeches to learn english in japan? (bbcnews). I would like to find out what makes Obama’s speeches so appealing to such a broad audience. Can you give me a hand? Thank you very much

Luan has a great analysis of the Grant Park Victory Speech highlighting the power of Obama’s oratory.

Amazing analysis!I am a Chinese student ,majoring in English.I want to analyze the rhetoric of Obama’s campaign speeches from the perspective of persuasion and identification.It is for the master degree.Your article is very useful for my thesis.Thank you.And would you give some advice on my thesis?I will be very appreciated .

The Edit30 blog has a great posting: Oratory – The Obama Style: Lessons for Business Communicators starts with a comprehensive analysis of Obama’s rhetoric and concludes with a series of lessons business communicators can learn from his style.

thank you! this helped me with a paper for my AP language class and i’m hopeful that i’m going to get a good grade now!

I am an A2 English Language & Literature student, and was not expecting to stumble onto something as helpful and straightforward as this, so I would like to say thank you for making my life easier!

Thank you! this has helped me alot with my school work!

Thanks. This is a great summary, and hopefully will empower my students.

Very helpful with my presentation about the rhetoric in Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address!! Thanks so much!

Further comments on Obama’s rhetorical techniques going back to his 2007 Convention speech in this Atlantic Magazine piece by James Fallows.

Andrew Dlugan has, as always, a very insightful analysis of this speech. He identifies 5 speechwriting lessons.

As the Obama years come to a close, Nathan Heller’s appreciation of President Obama’s accomplishments as a speaker in Vogue is worth reading.

Barack Obama

As the world turns… An appreciation of past Presidential inaugural speeches in anticipation of President Trump delivering his on Jan 20, 2017.

Which brings us to the present day and the case of President-elect Trump. Brinkley reported that Trump told him he’d started working on his address and planned to produce it himself. But his transition team has said he is also working with Stephen Miller, a former Senate staffer for Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions who has been on the Trump campaign staff for more than a year.

At 31, Miller is a year younger than Sorensen was when Kennedy took the oath. Raised in Southern California, he came east to attend Duke University before coming to work for Sessions. Like Sorensen, Miller is very much a policy adviser as well as a wordsmith — motivated by the immigration issue in particular.

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