The 2001 first inaugural speech by George W. Bush and the 2009 inaugural address of Barack Obama Essay

Select any two American presidential inaugural addresses for which a video recording is available. Which do you think is the better address, and why?

Throughout more than two hundred years Americans have witnessed fifty-six presidential inaugural addresses. Inaugural address is the second part of the inauguration ceremony, which also consists of the oath of office and a couple of prayers. In my essay I am going to analyse the 2001 first inaugural speech by George W. Bush and the 2009 inaugural address of Barack Obama. I have chosen these particular speeches because Bush and Obama had very different policies, thus I assume it should be really interesting to see whether their addresses were different or maybe quite similar.

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I will begin with comparing rhetorical features of the speeches. Both presidents used an antithesis several times. According to Atkinson (1984), an antithesis (also known as a contrastive pair or, simply, contrast) is used to ‘project a completion point’ and to deliver a surprising punch line, which keeps an audience focused (p. 73). Dlugan (2009) argues that contrast is ‘sometimes the best way to highlight and sharpen concepts’. In his speech Bush says: ‘The peaceful transfer of authority is rare in history, yet common in our country.’

He says so to praise democracy in the United States, thank to which a transfer of authority has always or almost always been peaceful, which is, though, rare in history of the world. Obama says: ‘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.’ By saying that, he reminds that newly elected American presidents have often taken the office during harsh times, and he is one of such examples (he became the president during a financial crisis). Other examples of an antithesis: ‘The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends … are old’ (Obama); ‘… the stakes of our debates appear small. But the stakes for America are never small’ (Bush).

Both Bush and Obama use word pairs. Bush says: ‘justice and opportunity’, ‘synagogue and mosque’, ‘freedom and democracy’, ‘friend and liberator’; Obama: ‘gathering clouds and raging storms’, ‘generosity and cooperation’, ‘conflict and discord’, ‘prosperity and freedom’.

Unsurprisingly, they also use alliteration, i.e. repetition of the same of similar sounds in different words (consonance is repetition of consonants, and assonance – vowels). Bush: ‘flawed and fallible’, ‘fair dealing and forgiveness’, ‘honored and humbled’, ‘church and charity’, ‘abandonment and abuse’; Obama: ‘mutual interest and mutual respect’, ‘civil war and segregation’. The former, however, delivers them more often. He uses both consonance and assonance over 30 times, while Obama does it only a couple of times.

As in many political speeches, also in these ones we can obviously notice a certain number of tricolons. They are a series of three clauses or phrases, which often increase in length. According to Atkinson (1984), listing three similar items can strengthen or underline a message (p. 60). Both presidents use them more than ten times. Obama, however, delivers them a couple of times more, which seems to make his message slightly stronger and more powerful. Some examples of tricolons are following: ‘President Clinton, distinguished guests and my fellow citizens’, ‘ … ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens’ (Bush); ‘all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness’, ‘homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered’ (Obama).

They also identify themselves with the American nation by saying such words as ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘our’, ‘ourselves’, etc., multiple times. Bush uses such words around a hundred times, while Obama slightly more often – around 140 times. Obama’s speech is a bit longer, though, and, therefore, both presidents use these words just over seven times per minute (with a slight advantage for Obama). Some examples of the moments when the presidents identify themselves with fellow Americans are: ‘my fellow citizens’, ‘our nation’, ‘the calling we share’ (Bush); ‘my fellow citizens’, ‘our nation’, ‘the journey we continue’ (Obama). As we can notice, both of them very strongly identify with their nation and while listening to their speeches, we cannot really say which one does it more.

A few times they also use an apostrophe, i.e. an ‘address [to] a specific group or person or personified abstraction absent or present.’ (Scaife 2004.) For instance, Bush addresses President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore but also all Americans: ‘my fellow citizens’, ‘I ask you’, ‘what you do’, etc. Similarly, Obama thanks Bush for his service to the nation, addresses Americans (‘my fellow citizens’, ‘the trust you have bestowed’, ‘God bless you’) but also America itself (‘America … let us remember’) and some people who are absent as well (the Muslim world, the people of poor nations, those leaders who blame the Western world for their countries’ weaknesses).

In the following part of my essay I am going to analyse, assess and compare how the presidents delivered their addresses. I will take into account characteristics of their voices, gestures, etc.

Camera work in the videos slightly differs. George Bush is shown with a bigger close-up and we can only see his head and shoulders, while Barack Obama is shown from his chest and above. In both videos the camera moves away from the presidents occasionally, but it happens more often in the Obama’s speech. During the Bush’s speech, from time to time the camera shows the mob gathered in front of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C, and some special guests, such as the First Lady Laura Bush or President Bill Clinton. However, the camera filming Obama during his inaugural address shows not only the whole audience and some distinguished guests but it sometimes also shows some anonymous citizens.

The presidents speak very differently during their speeches. Bush speaks more quietly than Obama raising his voice a bit only a couple of times. He speaks slowly and, in my opinion, quite monotonous. He also delivers short pauses regularly. On the other hand, Obama speaks quite loudly, faster and uses many pauses, which are longer than the ones in the Bush’s speech. It all makes the audience more focused – it is difficult not to pay attention if someone speaks in such a way. Longer pauses make his message even more powerful. Also, Obama delivers his whole speech from his memory, while Bush sometimes looks at his notes.

In order to witness the 2001 George W. Bush’s inaugural speech, around three hundred thousand people gathered in front of the Capitol, while the inauguration of Barack Obama had an audience of between eight hundred thousand and 1.8 million (no official measures were made). The longest applause during the Bush’s speech was nine seconds long (Bush 2001, 4:10), and during the Obama’s speech – eighteen seconds (Obama 2009, 12:35). According to Atkinson (1984), there is an unwritten rule saying that a single burst of applause should last for around eight seconds. If it is shorter and if it appears during a pause after a short delay, it means that it is probably half-hearted.

On the other hand, a longer burst of applause which starts before a speaker pauses is considered to be more natural and enthusiastic (pp. 28-34). Most bursts of applause during the Bush’s speech last only for 6-7 seconds. They are also slightly quiet and usually appear during a pause, sometimes after a delay. Meanwhile, the bursts of applause during the Obama’s address are usually longer (sometimes over ten seconds), begin before Obama finishes speaking and are much louder (they are combined with whistles, screams and shouts ‘yeah!’). What is more, a few times Obama refuses invited applause of the audience and carries on speaking despite of applause (for example, in Obama 2009, 11:55 and 15:51).

It happens so because, apparently, applause was unexpected. Such a situation has three advantages. Firstly, it is probably a spontaneous reaction of an audience. Secondly, if a speaker refuses to accept applause, he seems to be a modest, not a devious person. And thirdly, he demonstrates that the content of his arguments are more important than the fact whether his audience shows its approval or not (Atkinson 1984, p. 99). Less frequently, but it also happens during the Bush’s speech (Bush 2001, 7:35). Anyway, to sum this paragraph up, the audience gathered for the Obama’s inauguration seem to be far more enthusiastic than the one that we can hear listening to the Bush’s speech, which is a significant advantage for Obama.

Now I am going to analyse hand gestures. Unfortunately, the Bush’s speech is filmed with a too big close-up so we cannot see his hands. Thus, I will only be able to analyse Obama’s hand gestures. A hand gesture that is used by Obama most often is the so-called ring (for instance in Obama 2009, 14:08 and 15:19). It is a shape in which the tip of the index finger and thumb touch each other. It is said that such a hand shape shows specificity or precision. However, Streeck (2008) argues that it may mean specificity to a speaker but not to an audience, or vice versa (p. 165).

Obama also uses the slice, which is ‘a rapid downward movement of a flat, open hand held in vertical orientation, with the palm facing to the side.’ (Streeck 2008, p. 161; examples in Obama 2009, 4:41 and 5:49.). One more kind of hand gesture used by Obama is the power grip, i.e. a shape ‘in which the four digits are curled as in a fist, but the thumb touches the outside of the index finger.’ (an example in Obama 2009, 17:40.) According to Streeck, there is no evidence that the power grip carries any specific meaning (2008, p. 166).

The presidents have also different head movements. George Bush, as I have said before, looks at his notes occasionally, while Obama does not use any notes at all. Bush looks both to the left and right, but into the camera, too. Obama, though, never looks into the camera. He only looks to the left and to the right at the crowd. Obama’s head movements thus seem to me to be slightly more monotonous.

To sum up the addresses when it comes to rhetorical features, I think they are quite similar. Both presidents like to use contrast to highlight a message, which is a very common phenomenon. Bush seems to deliver alliteration more often than Obama. Both of them identify themselves with fellow citizens really strongly and underline it by using certain words very often, though with a small advantage for Barack Obama. He also uses tricolons more often than Bush, which strengthens his message and makes it a bit more powerful. Therefore, in my opinion rhetoric of the Obama’s speech is slightly better than in the Bush’s one.

However, other features such as voice, audience reaction, hand gestures and head movements are quite a different story. Obama speaks louder and faster so his speech sounds more interesting than the Bush’s one, who speaks more quietly, slowly and, therefore, monotonously. The Obama’s crowd is also much more enthusiastic and spontaneous in its reaction – people not only clap but also scream and shout, while the Bush’s audience is much more calm and does not seem to be too excited about his address. Obama’s audience’s applauses are longer, too. It would be unfair to give an advantage to Obama for his hand gestures considering the fact that we cannot see Bush’s hands because of too much of a close-up. Yet, it is worth mentioning that Obama’s gestures are quite interesting. What Bush is better at in my opinion are head movements.

In general, I think the Obama’s speech is better. Not only is the address slightly more interesting but it is also delivered in a better way.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Atkinson, M. (1984): Our Masters’ Voices. London: Methuen.

Bush, G.W. (2001): Inaugural address. Retrieved from CSPAN: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXzgMdj5urs ; transcription retrieved from: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/George_W._Bush’s_First_Inaugural_Address

Dlugan, A. (2009): 5 Speechwriting Lessons from Obama’s Inaugural Speech. In Six Minutes: Speaking and Presentation Skills. Retrieved from: http://sixminutes.dlugan.com/inauguration-speech-analysis-barack-obama-inaugural/

Obama, B. (2009): Inaugural address. Retrieved from CSPAN: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjnygQ02aW4 ; transcription retrieved from: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Barack_Obama’s_Inaugural_Address

Scaife, R. (2004): A Glossary of Rhetorical Terms with Examples. In Division of Classics, Department of Modern & Classical Languages, Literatures, & Cultures, University of Kentucky: Lexington, KY, United States. Retrieved from: http://www.uky.edu/AS/Classics/rhetoric.html

Streeck, J. (2008): ‘Gesture in Political Communication: A Case Study of Democratic Presidential Candidates During the 2004 Primary Campaign’, Research on Language & Social Interaction, 41:2, 154 – 186. Retrieved from: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/ftinterface~content=a793249237~fulltext=713240930

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