Wabash Professors Reflect on Inaugural Address

by Howard W. Hewitt

January 21, 2009

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Much of Barack Obama’s political success and celebrity has been attributed to his oratorical skills. Three Wabash professors watched Tuesday’s Inaugural Address with great interest and reflected on its content and style.

Rhetoric Professors Dr. David Timmerman and Dr. Todd McDorman looked at the President’s language and style. And in Timmerman’s words, "I’m reminded why I enjoy studying the role of rhetoric in Democracy. Dr. Tim Lake, Director of the Malcolm Institute of Black Studies, reflected on the style of the speech and its historical significance.

"The aspect that stood out to me the most was the manner in which he described us, the American people," Timmerman said. "In fact, the speech reminded me of an old essay called The Second Persona by Edwin Black which argues that every discourse has an implied audience or more to put it more forcefully, that every discourse calls an audience into being; an audience with particular characteristics.

"There are many places to see this in his speech but a few that I particularly appreciated were in describing us as those who have chosen "hope over fear," and "unity of purpose over conflict and discord," those who must leave aside childhood for adulthood, as a people "shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth" and finally as those ready to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

Lake was caught at the very beginning by Obama’s opening: ‘My fellow citizens’

"With that opening line President Obama replaced narrow notions of who can be counted as full-fledged members of these United States of America," Lake said. "The power of the salutation delivered to the American people by a President who has the blood of African people flowing in his veins is incredible enough. However, the greeting is more remarkable because it at once conjures our past and current divisions while defining our common crisis and future destiny."

McDorman was impressed by the tone of Obama’s speech. "While he certainly recalled the memory of the past through direct allusion to Washington, and more indirect allusions to the likes of Lincoln and Reagan, his message was also arguably more pointed than what we have seen in many inaugural addresses, in both his recognition of the challenges and problems of the present and his resolve to change American policy and attitudes (including some seemingly unflattering allusions to President Bush). 

"His use of an extended weather metaphor denoted the challenges while the archetypal metaphor of American adventurism (the metaphor of a journey and taking risk) symbolized the greatness that will allow for the challenges to be met.  To this end, Obama was both honest and hopeful, both challenging and uplifting, while encouraging a more communal, rather than individualistic, view of our most sacred beliefs.   I can only hope we embrace his call to return to the eternal truths of the country, to establish the "new era of responsibility" that he calls for."

Lake was taken by Obama’s effort to differentiate, what he called, "the fine line between the ethos of America’s manifest destiny and secular humanism.

"Throughout the speech he invoked the hope that God’s grace is upon America while continuing to emphasize that America is what we have made it and will become what we make of it. We hear echoes of this sort of civic religious expression in Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. Lincoln resolved the tension between divine providence and human agency in an appeal to "the better angels of our natures." For President Obama the resolution was expressed as a call for America to grow up. In the words of scripture, he asked that we put away childish notions of class, race, tribe - and I would add gender and orientation – that keep us disunited in our common interest as citizens."

For those who look at rhetoric, political thought, and public discourse, perhaps Timmerman put it best. "It’s going to be fun to be a professor of rhetoric again with Obama as President."

Upper right photo: Barack Obama delivers campaign address April 18 during Pennsylvania primary. He spoke in front of Independance Hall in Philadelphia. Photo by Howard Hewitt

 


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