Article Category: Speechwriting

Analysis and Opinions: Obama Inauguration Speech

Barack Obama Inauguration SpeechYesterday morning, I ran five miles on the treadmill. I greeted my waking wife and daughter with a hug. I enjoyed a delicious inauguration breakfast omelette. I checked email. And then I glued myself to the living room chair to watch what I believed would be the greatest speech of my life.

I wasn’t alone. All around the world, people were doing the same (well, except for the 5 mile run).

Many were expecting, hoping, and praying for the greatest speech of all time.

And was it? That is a question that is answered in the heart of each individual. It is the subject for endless water-cooler discussions. It is the topic for debate among thousands of journalists and public speaking experts.

Yesterday, I wrote about 5 speechwriting lessons we can all learn from President Obama’s speech (including the speech video and text).

Today, just as on election night and for the Republican and Democratic conventions, I’ve compiled a very small sample of the speech critiques, analysis, and opinions of Barack Obama’s Inaugural Speech. May the debate continue.

Speech Experts Critique Barack Obama’s Inauguration Speech

Bert Decker:

President Barack Obama gave a great Inaugural speech today. Yet it was not legendary. […]

[E]xpectation was his enemy. The great majority loved his speech, yet so many expected so much from the great orator that some were disappointed.

Ian Griffin:

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.

Paul Begala along with several other CNN opinions:

When John F. Kennedy watched Martin Luther King give his “I have a dream” speech he said “He’s good. He’s damn good.” I suspect up in heaven, it’s what Kennedy and King are saying.”

Mark Whittington:

If the first inaugural address of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan had the soaring grandeur of a Beethoven symphony, Barack Obama’s inaugural address had the smallness of something pinked out on a tinny piano in a honky tonk.

There were attempts, to be sure, of grand rhetoric in Obama’s inaugural speech. They just didn’t work very well.

Thomas Defrank in the New York Daily News:

It was part sermon, part tutorial, part call to arms, well-packaged and elegantly delivered.

Yet for all the inspiring, hopeful flourishes of his 18-minute inaugural address, Obama also served up a stark, tough-love message.

Peter Wallsten and Peter Gosselin in the Hartford Courant:

But in his speech, Obama was surprisingly stern, making clear in statements directed at Americans and even people in countries around the world that he was offering a break not just from the past eight years but from decades of past leadership in Washington.

Bonnie Erbe in the U.S. News and World Report:

Baer, Mark Penn (a Democratic public relations professional), and others speculated that the Obama staff did not want to write a soaring speech at a time when it’s most vital for the new president to downplay expectations. […] his biggest challenge now that he’s in office is proving that he can run the country. Part of doing that is getting his fans to realize he’s a man, not a god.

Michael Sebastian (in a review of several opinions):

“President Obama’s inaugural address was a flop,” former Reagan administration speechwriter Hal Gordon tells […]

“I thought the speech was incredibly moving, but not because Obama did anything new,” says Bob Lehrman, former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. “It worked because he, and his writers, stuck with the things they’ve done for the last five years.” […]

“Given the author, I’m pretty sure that was deliberate,” says Askew. “Most of his soaring lines tended to be pretty long—not the sort of lines committed to memory, but majestic as you heard them.

Brian Jenner:

Obama’s fluency is amazing. He fulfilled every expectation. Because he comes from the charismatic preacher tradition, he can carry it off brilliantly. The result is very satisfying emotionally, but as Bill Clinton pointed out, “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.”

Nick Morgan:

Overall, the speech was very good, not great.  When times are tough, you need to rally people to a cause.  Did Obama do that?  Yes, he did.  But the archetypal story that he told was “stranger in a strange land” rather than a quest, and the quest story is better for enlisting your listeners in a cause.

John Watkis:

The speech won’t be remembered alongside FDR’s or JFK’s inaugurals as an all-time great. But the success of the speech will be measured by how hard the American people work in the coming weeks, months and years of Obama’s administration.

TJ Walker:

Obama’s speech lacked noticeable sound bites present from other past great inaugurals, i.e. Kennedy’s “ask not…” The problem for Obama is that today’s media culture fancies itself so sound bite savvy that it is harder for politicians to use them in a major address without sounding gimmicky.

Wow! Amazing visual representation by Brandy Agerbeck,

Amazing visual representation by Brandy Agerbeck, -

Setting the Context – Speech Analysis Before Obama Inauguration Address

Christine Kent on

“It’s a speech to the world,” says Adams. “There will be people reading this speech via TV subtitles in Beijing.” And the reach of tomorrow’s speech is breathtaking to imagine, says Lehrman: “The Internet and YouTube have made an incredible difference in what the president needs to say.”

This global reach, Lehrman adds, means presidents shouldn’t do aggressive “Go USA” flag-waving. “We’re in a global crisis, and there will be millions of people listening to this speech with a lot of hostilities to the U.S.,” Lehrman says. “They need to see that there will be change ahead.”

Carla Marinucci in the San Francisco Chronicle:

It will probably be the most widely watched address ever delivered, one that will draw millions of Americans and billions around the globe together – to savor the moment and the message of one man at one memorable turning point in American history.

Robert Schlesinger in U.S. News and World Report:

I suspect—beyond the obvious reasons—that the stars may be lining up Tuesday for a historic address.

The most memorable inaugural addresses […] have three things in common: They are a meeting of man, message, and moment.

Robert Schlesinger (a 2nd article) in the U.S. News and World Report:

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address and John F. Kennedy’s inaugural are rightly remembered as among the best speeches presidents have given to commence their terms. FDR’s admonition that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and his confident, calming tone soothed the jangled national psyche at a critical moment. Kennedy’s singing imagery of a new generation of Americans coming to power with a spirit of self-sacrifice (“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”) inspired the nation and set the tone for his administration.

New York Times: Full Text of Every Inaugural Speech from 1789 to the Present

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