A Comparison of Two Inaugurals: Kennedy v Obama
President Kennedy gave 3 State of the Union addresses, and they are almost completely forgotten today. His Inaugural Address, on the other hand, is cited frequently, and whenever great political speechmaking is discussed. Rhetorically elegant, memorable, and inspirational, the speech deserves its iconic status.
What will be the fate of President Obama’s Second Inaugural? Will it become a frequently cited speech with the power to move people to action, or will it go in a file marked ‘Presidential history’ like Kennedy’s – and most – state of the union addresses?
There are several reasons why I’m afraid that Obama’s speech will not be remembered in the same way as Kennedy’s. Following are 5 rhetorical lessons from a comparison of the two speeches.
1. Obama’s Inaugural was too long. At over 2100 words, v. 1300, Obama’s speech was nearly twice as long as Kennedy’s. Kennedy more shrewdly judged the attention spans of his audience than Obama. JFK’s speech clocks in at about 10 minutes – just about the right length for a cold day in January, an outdoor occasion, and a day with a good deal of pomp and ceremony already on the docket. Obama’s speech, on the other hand, strains the attention spans of the (very cold) audience in front of him.
2. Kennedy’s speech follows a rhetorical structure that leads to action; Obama’s did not. Everyone admires the elegance of Kennedy’s phrasing (Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country) but not many people notice that much of the rhetorical power of Kennedy’s speech came from following an ancient Greek structure for persuasion and leading to action.
Kennedy began with a problem:
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.
He’s telling us that we’re in a nuclear age, and an age in which we could abolish disease. Putting the two possibilities together in one sentence is brilliant speechmaking. And in the next sentence, Kennedy alludes to the struggles for freedom and democracy around the globe.
There’s a lot at stake here, and we’re immediately engaged. Obama, on the other hand, begins with a long introduction about equality and the struggle to establish it in our nation’s history. He doesn’t get to the present day until nearly 4 minutes in, and then it’s only to talk about math and science teachers, roads, networks, and research labs. Important stuff, to be sure, but hardly as universal and engaging as the promise of universal prosperity and nuclear war.
Once Kennedy has laid out the problem in forceful terms, he moves on to suggest a solution, and one that asks for everyone’s help:
So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us….
In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.
Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation,” a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
That clear problem-solution format is one that has called people to action for over 2,000 years. You abandon it as a speaker at your peril. When Obama calls us to action, on the other hand, he gives us a list of legislative needs – more, indeed, like a State of the Union Address than an Inaugural. The problem is not as clear or compelling, and the solution is equally vague:
We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.
3. Obama’s Inaugural sets its sights too low. Nuclear war or an elimination of poverty: for Kennedy, the stakes are very high. Obama’s stakes are not as attention-grabbing:
America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together.
4. Kennedy is inclusive; Obama is exclusive. Kennedy judges his audience well; he invites everyone (who loves freedom and democracy) to join him. He addresses a generation. Obama’s emphasis on race, sexual preference, and the 99%, on the other hand, seems calculated to exclude Republicans and include Democrats.
Of course, we live in more polarized times, but when you know that a high percentage of your audience already disagrees with you, it’s important to address their concerns. There is nothing for that half of the audience in Obama’s speech. He’s speaking to his base, not to all the people.
5. Kennedy’s speech takes on the world; Obama’s is focused on America. One of the ways that US politicians have traditionally built agreement is by invoking enemies beyond our shores. That’s exactly what Kennedy does from the start. The world’s his stage. Obama, on the other hand, begins with a recitation of a particular look at US history and only gets to the rest of the world much later in the speech. The result is an insular-feeling speech and one that is far more likely to pit red v blue states, and Democrat v Republican.
President Obama’s Second Inaugural addresses big issues of importance to Americans and the world today, it paints a picture of the history of equality in the US, and it includes mention of groups that have historically been marginalized. For those efforts it deserves to be studied, remembered, and acted upon. But as a political call to action, it lacks the sweep and power – and the rhetorical brilliance – of Kennedy’s Inaugural.