Dissecting Obama's speech

'We' is the best way for a president to evoke a sense of unity. Obama said it 60 times.

In 1977, Michael S. Oberman penned “My Fellow Citizens….”, a fascinating analysis of inaugural addresses, in Harvard Magazine. The best speeches, he found, were delivered by the men who went on to become the most admired presidents (think Kennedy, Roosevelt, Lincoln, the spirits of whom Barack Obama channelled in his address). It’s somewhat predictable, wrote Oberman, a New York City attorney, since the “ability to communicate effectively is an important trait of any great leader.”

The first key element of a great inaugural address, Oberman posits, is that a president acknowledge the challenges facing the nation. Less than 150 words into his address yesterday, Barack Obama rattled off a laundry list: war, a weak economy, lost homes, jobs and businesses, expensive health care, ineffective schools, and an over-dependence on foreign oil. “It was surprising in its frankness,” says Oberman, “given how many people were on the other side of the aisle from the previous administration.”

After identifying the many troubles, Obama proceeded with a call for unity, which experts say is another staple of great presidential speeches. “He saw the potential of a new, new ideal being laid out where there’s shared struggle, shared service and shared sacrifice,” says Peniel Joseph, a professor of African-American studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, M.A. “He’s trying to knit together all different parts of the country.” This is especially important in the aftermath of what was, at times, a highly partisan election, adds Buddy Howell, a professor specializing in political rhetoric at Denison University in Granville, O.H. Obama was moving “from political division to political reconciliation,” he says.

The most powerful way to evoke a sense of unity in a presidential address, says Oberman, is through the use of “we” rather than “I.” Except for a few first-person references early on, Obama used the collective term 60 times. “Obama made it plain the direction he wants to take the country,” says Oberman. “But he made it equally plain it won’t happen unless the country joins with him.”

In recognizing the current obstacles Americans must overcome, the new President cited historical crises that ordinary citizens have suffered and conquered: those who “toiled in sweatshops” and “endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth” and those who fought and died in wars. “The fact that he could talk about some of the flaws of the democracy and the evolution of the country is very important,” says Joseph. “It’s a much more intelligent inaugural address [than] the rah-rah speech we usually get.”

Obama ended his speech by reciting the words of George Washington, though he didn’t mention him by name: “Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.” Oberman calls it “presidential plagiarism”—when an inaugural address includes an unsourced quotation from a previous leader—a device used by the speaker to demonstrate a timeless approach to governing.

Among the most moving parts of Obama’s address, say experts, was when he spoke about a return to traditional values: “hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true.” In a speech meant to address the future of a nation facing unparalleled trials, this plea for a return to service and kindness is telling of Obama’s own value system.

In his essay, Oberman wrote that a great inaugural speech helps citizens understand the president’s intentions. “At once, the inaugural address is a challenge and a test: to master this speech is to be closer to mastering the problems of the Presidency.” Obama did well, say experts, in laying out his vision, even if this address wasn’t the best of his career—observers point to his speeches at the 2004 Democratic convention and on election night as his most electrifying. “It was very eloquent,” says Howell, of yesterday’s address. “When you’re the first black president, you’re sworn in the day after the Martin Luther King holiday, and you’ve intentionally cast yourself in comparison to Lincoln and Kennedy, that’s the danger—expectations may come too high.”

Still, Howell says that Obama’s speech fulfilled its mandate, “which is to show that we can move forward together. Him just being there is the embodiment of that message.”