Critical Discourse Analysis Of President Barrack Obama’s Inauguration Speech (January 20, 2009)
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This essay’s aim is to analyze Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, January, 2009 applying
various linguistic approaches. The linguistic devices used in the speech will be in focus in my
research. It is a qualitative research, that is to say, the primary data is a verbal protocol, whose
intertextuality – in the aspects of meaning and meaning production – will be analyzed with the
help of such approaches as content analysis, critical theory and discourse analysis. I will try to
unfold the sophisticated linguistic composition of various techniques lying in fields of
semantics and rhetoric, employed by Obama and argue that the coherent use of them produces
the desired effect in the delivery of the message.
A Presidential Inaugural Address is a ceremonial speech, made by a newly elected president
of the USA, marking a new Presidential term. The Oxford Guide to the United States
Government states that a speech “sets the tone for the administration” and that “presidents
usually stress unity and bipartisanship after what is sometimes a divisive and bitter Presidential
campaign” (“inauguration, Presidential”). There are no regulations concerning the length or
issues of the speech, it is only language which is specified by the Constitution. The richness of
the English language is employed to produce the first Presidential address to the nation and the
world, the speech which is in focus of the world-wide mass media.
An inauguration ceremony takes place at the Capitol on January, 20 and is usually attended
by a large crowd, to which President speaks to. Presidents usually have a prepared text of the
speech. Obama seemed to have learned his by heart and often appealed to the audience in the
form of life performance interrupted by applause, which is indicated in the transcript.
The term performance, introduced by Chomsky, will be used in this paper since it describes
“the way the individual goes about using language” (Mey 5). The term reflexes the issue that I
will analyze, that is to say, not only the words used by the speaker as a lexical register, but also
the context in which the speech is situated. Having been skillfully coordinated, they create the
performance that aims the delivery of the message. I will focus on the structural and functional
properties of the language, the combination of which enables the speaker to achieve the goal of
In chapter 2, I will introduce the historical and cultural context in which the speech was
made. Context is defined as “circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or an
idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood” (Oxford Dictionary of English, context
noun). Defining the term context as dynamic, Mey states that it “is about understanding what
things are for; it is also what gives our utterance their true pragmatic meaning” (41). The
context is vital for analysis of any speech, particularly made in public. I will draw attention to
the historical, cultural and social circumstances during the election campaign, which preceded
the Presidential address.
In subchapter 2.1, the cultural and social background of Obama will be described. During a
presidential campaign, any personal details of a candidate may be significant; they indicate the
electors’ preferences and, possibly, expectations. A President’s address, in turn, is based on
audience’s expectations. That is why, I think, this aspect should be taken into account while
analyzing the speech.
The historical/political context will be introduced in subchapter 2.2 and will be devoted to
the historical, political, economic and social aspects in American society, the complexity of
which made it possible for a colored man to become President of the USA for the first time in
the country’s history. This subchapter also provides information about certain features of AfroAmerican
traditional sermons, which, arguably, have influenced the president’s address.
Chapter 3 describes methodology of this work, that is to say, general approaches in this
Chapter 4 is devoted to the analysis of the speech from rhetorical and linguistic approaches.
Since the address is a speech made in public, a rhetoric study, which is tightly linked to the use
of linguistic devices, is worth doing.
Subchapter 4.1 is focused on the use of personal deixis in the speech and their role in aiming
the delivery of the message. The choice of deixis, I will state, is carefully and skillfully made in
order to foreground or background particular objects, so that to consider them appearing in
more or less favorable aspects.
In subchapter 4.2, I will rearrange some extracts from the speech into stanzas – the structure
of writing related to poetry – which I find to have strong links in the address. Referring to
theories in linguistics dealing with parallelism, didactic poetry, rhythm and metrics I will try to
prove the idea that the speaker uses rhythm as a tool for creating an emotionally agreeable
atmosphere and an easily memorized message in his performance.
In subchapter 4.3, the role of parallelism and foregrounding in the complex of the linguistic
devices employed in the speech will be analyzed. They are the tools which strengthen or
weaken objects in the chosen extract, depending on the goal which the speaker sets up. The
subchapter is divided into two sub-subchapters, focused on syntactic and lexical forms of
parallelism – 4.3.1 and the relationship with alliteration – 4.3.2.
Rhetoric will be in focus in chapter 4.4, particularly, the lexical register which reflects the
intention to introduce forthcoming changes in the new administration’s policy. The attention
will be drawn to the choice of words related to the innovative projects, which appear to be as
presumable as the change of generations.
In his speech, Obama cites other famous orators both directly and indirectly. Chapter 4.5
draws parallels between some points in the address and speeches of Dr Martin Luther King and
Rabbi Joachim Prinz.
In the inaugural address, as well as in his other speeches, Obama uses elements of preaching,
which have already been noticed in mass media and academic studies. Chapter 4.6 draws
attention to the use of words from the Bible, Afro-American traditional sermon and the role of
transcendental theme in political rhetoric in the USA.
In chapter 5, I will connect the discussed issues on the linguistic devices employed in the
speech, which aim to maximize the effectiveness of the delivery of the message. The discussion
on this subject will be presented here.
Chapter 6 is the conclusion, where the analyzed aspects of various linguistic discourses will
be summarized. I will conclude that their combination makes a significant contribution to the
success of the speech made in public.
2. Context: the historical, cultural and social circumstances
The social and historical context plays a significant role in understanding the message of the
speech and analyzing it. The term context is defined as:
those parts of a text preceding and following any particular passage, giving it a meaning
fuller or more identifiable that if it were read in isolation. The context of any statement
may be understood to comprise . . . the biographical, social, cultural, and historical
circumstances in which it is made (including the intended audience or reader). (The
Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, context)
In the following chapter I will describe the social and cultural aspects of the context
preceding the performing of the Inaugural Address.
2.1 Social and cultural background
In November 2008, Barack Obama became the first African American president in the
history of the United States. His electoral victory was considered to be a breakthrough in the
social and political aspects of the American society. He embodied the dream of millions of his
fellow citizens to come true, including Martin Luther King Jr., with whom Obama is often
compared and whose principles he maintains. BBC News stated that “for many . . . Barack
Obama’s presidency will be the culmination of Dr King’s dream” (1). The day before the
inauguration, Obama drew attention to the resemblance when he “helped to decorate a
community project in Washington in memory of Dr King” and used his idea for a deeper
alikeness by saying that “we resolve that as we walk, we must walk together. And as we go
forward in the work of renewing the promise of this nation, let’s remember King’s lesson – that
out separate dreams are really one”. (BBC News, 1)
It is remarkable that, besides the fact that Obama is biracial, religion is said not to have
played any particular role in his childhood, since his father had no particular influence on him
and his mother was “an agnostic humanist”, while “the grandparents who helped to raise him
were not religious” (F. I. Greenstein, 209). The President represents a large number of the
Americans in the sense of his ethnic and social background. Being dark skinned, he was
brought up by his white maternal grandparents apart from a few years when he lived and
attended primary school in Indonesia. Obama later wrote that, during his youth he experienced
“a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect” (Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 2007). Here
could be mentioned the role of his wife, Michelle, a genuine representative of the African
American population in the electoral campaign, but further discussion of this is beyond the
remit of this essay.
2.2. Historical / political context
The presidency of an African American person would probably not have been possible a
few decades ago; many people claimed that they would never have dreamed that they would
see a dark skinned man becoming a president of the United States. Obama realizes this, having
said that he is a son of a man who “less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a
local restaurant” (Obama, 5). A new generation has grown up since Martin Luther King Jr.
gathered millions of people for peaceful marching to Washington in order to campaign for the
identical rights for all races.
The political situation is also an important aspect of Obama’s victory. The former
president’s administration involved the country in a wearisome war with Iraq, an unpopular
war from which the country seems unable to extricate itself. Along with a military mission in
Afghanistan, it has cost an enormous amount of money to the tax payers. On top of that, the
deep recession in the economy, which started at the time of the election debates and which is
said to be the worst one since the Great Depression, in a general understanding, damaged the
popularity of the Republicans.
A new, “fresh face” of a relatively young candidate appeared on the political stage at this
moment, who “promise[d] healing” instead of fighting. Not only did he promise changes, but
he also spoke a language of young people, which associates with ability, opportunity and
making new crucial decisions (Capone, 2972). The candidate, Barack Obama, made a
“meteoric rise to national prominence” (Greenstein, 206).
This essay’s research is qualitative and the speech will be analyzed by employing a number
of theoretical approaches in the fields of semantics, pragmatics and rhetorical criticism. The
use of various linguistic devices employed in the speech, which contribute to the aim of any
speech and, particularly, a public one held by a politician, will be examined. Thus, the aim is to
analyze the complexity of the devices in the context and the intertextuality, which means that
“all texts are . . . composed of other (pre-existing) texts . . . held together in a state of constant
interaction . . . [hence] all text exist in a state of partiality and inter-dependency with other
texts” (A Dictionary of Critical Theory, “intertextuality”).
The format of C-essay does not present the opportunity to examine the whole speech from
all possible approaches, hence, I will first analyze some excerpts from it in a framework of
singular notions related to the theoretical basis of the above mentioned fields and then I will
draw parallels between the notions. Roderick P. Hart’s conceptions on modern rhetorical
criticism and Jacob L. Mey’s on pragmatics issues will be widely considered while completing
the work on this paper. I will also refer to a study on Barack Obama’s South Carolina speech
by A. Capone.
The prepared text of President-elect Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, as provided by the
Presidential Inaugural Committee, is in the Appendix and referred to according to its numbered
4. Rhetorical and Linguistic Strategies
In his performance, Obama employs a complex of rhetorical and linguistic strategies, which
allow the speaker to introduce and deliver the message in favorable context. Analyzing
rhetoric, Hart says that “human history has been written by great persons authoring great
orations for social betterment. Often, these great statements have seemed more poetic than
pragmatic, as satisfying to the heart as to the head”(4).
In order to distinguish a poem from a narrative story or any other type of message, I will try
to highlight rhythm by employing a number of linguistic devices including metre and
parallelism. Simpson defines metre as “an organized pattern of strong and weak syllables” and
its “repetition into a regular phrasing across a line of verse” (15). Stanza is a product of
correspondence of and “the length, metrical scheme and rhythmical pattern [of the verse lines] with those of at least one other such group of verse lines in a poem” (The Concise Oxford
Companion to English Literature, “stanza”).Inauguration Speech
An extensive use of pronouns ‘we’, ‘our’ and ‘us’ in combination with a particular lexical
register aims to foreground the desired effect of unity and communion the speaker and the
4.1. The use of personal deixis
Deictic expressions, known as deixis, can be interpreted only in the context in which they are
used. The word deictic derives from the Greek language and is used for pointing a subject. I
will focus on the use of deixis employed in the speech which, I will argue, creates an effect of
unity on one side and “outsiders” on the other.Inauguration Speech
In his analysis of Obama’s electoral speech, Capone indicates that “a speaker is responsible
for the positions or opinions advanced, but need not necessarily be the animator or even the
author” (2967). He refers to Goffman for definitions of “a principal in the legalistic sense”,
which involves imposing “self-identification” as we not I. (2967). By doing so, the speaker
“become[s] a representative of the people” (2967).Inauguration Speech
This pattern of seemingly speaking on behalf of the audience is focused upon in the present
chapter. The use of person deixis in the speech, in these circumstances, is worth investigating.
Unlike his previous public performances, where Obama aimed to convince the audience that he
was the right candidate for the position of a congressman or, later, a president, here he is a
victor and addressing his message from a position of Head of State. He, probably, does not
need to put his personality in focus any longer, but rather needs the support for his future
challenges. In this case the pronoun I, which was used generously in Obama’s previous
speeches, emerges only three times in his inaugural address in its beginning: “I stand here
today . . . I thank President Bush . . . Today I say to you . . . “ (Obama 1). The first person
pronoun “I” does not appear any more in the performance. Inauguration Speech
Obama favors the third person plural pronouns we, us and our(s) in the rest of the speech –
the pronouns which play their significant role in creating a sense of unity of the speaker with
the audience. We, us and our(s) are employed 61, 20 and 65 times respectively and are,
probably, the most often used words of the speech. The speaker does not distance himself from
the American people; instead, everything the president proclaims further seems to be issued by
us – the people of America. Inauguration Speech
According to Capone, “a political speech is in itself an interpretation of the audience’s
feelings and needs” that allow “the audience to build its own intentionality” while a politician
reflexes them (2969) . The above mentioned pronouncements are employed as the inclusive
ones throughout the text. The speaker, in this case, is a member of the society to which he
speaks. Whether he speaks of the previous achievements or the future plans, the orator claims
them to be a commonality, which means that he shares responsibility for everything being said
with the audience. As a result, the audience seems to become a co-author of the speech,
providing that they approve of it, and they do so by frequent applause. Thus, the president
speaks on behalf of the American people: “On this day we gather . . . we come to proclaim . . .”.
The addresser has a message to his opponents, and the pronouns they, their, those and some
are served as if to indicate a distance between the American people, of whose behalf Obama
speaks , and those “who question the scale of our [the Americans] ambitions” (Obama 3) . The
victory in the election, presumably, allows the new president to associate himself with the
majority of the nation and to look down at “the cynics [who] fail to understand [is] that the
ground has shifted beneath them” (Obama 3). By carefully chosen pronouns, the speaker
foregrounds the Americans, whose ideas he articulates and backgrounds the rest, who “have
forgotten what this country has already done” (Obama 3). Inauguration Speech Having repeated by then we and our
dozens of times and created a panoramic picture of the nation’s achievements, the present state
and the future challenges, Obama has little difficulty opposing and disparaging “those who
prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame” ( Obama 2).
. Among the complex of the devices that Obama operates in the speech, I will argue in the
following sub-chapter, the rhythm plays a significant role. Rhythm contributes to delivering the
message in a most effective and agreeable way. Ancient Greeks used didactic poetry, not as a
literary genre but, rather, to give instructions applying to it “as being more easily remembered
than prose” (The Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, “didactic poetry”).
Moreover, poetry brings sentimental feelings which either thrusts disturbing thoughts or
stresses them, depending on the context of the text. Inauguration Speech Words often have double meaning and can
be interpreted differently. In poetry one can “play” with words employing their phonetic
features, metaphors and sonic effect.Inauguration Speech
In the following excerpt from the speech, the first line in the first four stanzas (the fourth
one, however, has a conjunction “and”, which neither disturbs the rhythm nor change the
meaning) starts with the same phrase “we will” followed by a verb phrase. The other three lines
follow the main idea expressed in the first one. They are similar both rhythmically and
metrically. The last stanza is different in the structure and introverted, since “the thought veers
from the main theme and then returns thereto” (Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), “Parallelism”,
2/4). Instead of starting, it finishes with the same construction “we will” followed by a verb
In the speech, a vestige of a poem emerges from time to time, both in terms of rhythm and
lyrical contexts of the word related to nature (as the Romantic poets would do) for describing
practical, moreover, technological purposes. I will try to rearrange an extract into stanzas,
where each one (except the last one) consists of four lines and is, therefore, called quatrain
(The Concise Oxford, “stanza”). The last stanza brings a conclusion; and the last verse in the
stanza sounds as if it were a final chord in a piece of music:
We will build the roads and bridges,
the electric grids and digital lines
that feed our commerce
and bind us together.
We will restore science to its rightful place,
and wield technology’s wonders
to raise health care’s quality
and lower its cost.
We will harness the sun and the winds
and the soil
to fuel our cars
and run our factories.
And we will transform our schools,
and colleges and universities
to meet the demands
of a new age. Inauguration Speech
All this we can do.
And all this we will do. (Obama 2)
The sun and winds are invoked to symbolise man’s need for the energy necessary to drive
the economy. Obama does not speak a ‘dry’ language of economists; he prefers the language of
poets. Hart compares an orator – a persuader – with a poet being “artistically creative. Both
work with symbols to breathe life into ideas” and use “their imaginations to engage their
audiences imaginations” Inauguration Speech The meaning of every sentence rests beyond the bare words – it
is metaphorical. Analysing arguments, Hart refers to Toulmin’s work, applying to the term
major claims as:
a) the broadest, most encompassing, statements made by the speaker, b) lie at the
level of abstraction higher than all other statements the speaker makes, c) represent
what the speaker hopes will become the “residual message” in listeners minds (i.e.,
the main thoughts remembered when the details of the message have been
forgotten), and d) are frequently repeated or restated in the message” (Hart 98).
In the extract above, every sentence contains a major claim, according to its definition. The
message does not consist of specific words having definitive meaning of the work planned;
they are, rather, “the broadest, most encompassing”. What seems to strengthen the message is
its rhythmical construction and repetition. Unlike the ‘prosaic’ parts of the speech, where the
listener does not need to employ their imagination, the poetical ones require it in order to fill
the gap in the meanings between “the sun and the winds”, which should “fuel our cars”, or
work out the way “to wield technology’s wonders” (Obama 2). Inauguration Speech.Inauguration Speech
The structures of these stanzas follow the rules of synthetic parallelism, where “the theme is
worked up by the building of thought upon similar thought” (Catholic Encyclopedia (1913),
“Parallelism”, 2/4). Inauguration Speech These linguistic tools contribute to the speaker’s foregrounding of the idea
of forthcoming changes by repeating the same or similar syntactic structures along with the
same phrase “we will”. Lexically, the stanzas also correspond. Inauguration Speech The theme of building and
reconstruction the country’s economy progresses throughout the block with a final ‘chord’
where Obama seems to have changed his pre-presidential slogan “yes, we can” to “yes, we will. Inauguration Speech.