Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address: The Renewal of American Responsibility

Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address:

The Renewal of American Responsibility

Rebecca G. Agee

Methods of Rhetorical Analysis

Dr. Carol Wilder

February 6, 2009

In his inaugural address of January 20, 2009, President Barack Obama called for a change in the direction of America. He challenged all Americans to assume responsibility for that change—reminding them of their shared history of tribulations and accomplishments. Obama did so using a now-familiar eloquence and overall tone and language that helped place him in the highest office offered in America.

In the following analysis of his speech, I will reveal how Obama used the Neo-Aristotelian canon of Invention, (Foss, 2008) more specifically, the subcategories of Ethos (credibility), Logos (reason) and Pathos (emotional appeals) to awaken both American and global citizens to a new era of change and responsibility—one exemplified by antecedents found in the annals of American history.


Obama’s immediate audience that very cold day was both record-breaking in terms of sheer numbers and enthusiasm.  It is notable that Obama attempted to reach a global audience—specifically calling out to the Muslim world.   Obama acknowledges and returns the faith and good will of his audience when he says, “I stand here…humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed…” (Obama, 2009).


Obama, the man, both embodies and symbolizes the very change for which he calls. Born in 1961, his is the first post-baby boom presidency; far more importantly, as the first African-American president—Obama shatters many of the previously staid racial barriers and tensions that have crippled America since its inception. A product of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, attractive and articulate, Obama brings into his presidency an avowed distaste for ‘Washington-as-usual politics’ (Charen, 2008). His open invitation and promise to listen to all ideas exemplifies his desire to bring a much-needed unity to Democrats and Republicans. The care and interest he shows towards his wife, Michelle, (a success in her own right) and their two girls serve to establish Obama as a loving family man.

In his speech, Obama elicits a common sense of outrage and injustice with his pledge to end “false promises” (2009). Further, displaying a knowledge and respect for Christian scripture he emphasizes how as a nation, America must “set aside childish things” and assume responsibility for the consequences of its actions (2009). He continues to remind his audience of the accountability and costs of good citizenship—revealing that it is God who causes us to act ethically—as a ‘good steward.’ Obama says how it is by “God’s grace” (2009) that we will bear the prize of freedom into the future.


By establishing a need for great changes in both economic and military policy, Obama reaches for an ethical and intellectual consensus among his audience. Obama prompts his audience to recall how America’s greatness has always been a consequence of hard work; and how as a nation of pioneers, innovators and survivors, America has faced and surmounted many obstacles. Obama supports this claim with references to America’s wartime victories—and the adversities overcome by its slaves, immigrants, farmers and laborers.

Further, Obama recounts the losses of American jobs, homes and businesses—as well as the increasing cost of health care and decreasing quality of education—claiming that these are “the indicators of crisis. (2009).  He clearly states that the appropriate inquiry should not concern the size of America’s government—but whether or not the government successfully serves the needs of its people. Acknowledging and answering to the need for a change in America’s status quo, Obama says that under his watch necessary, progressive programs will be balanced with accountability and evaluation. Further, he cautions Wall Street that similar measures will be applied to its activities, as well.

Obama contends that the antagonism between the world’s religions can and will dissipate.  He cites America’s Civil War and its history of racial segregation and how the nation emerged from both “stronger and more united” (2009)—as well as how “a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at the local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath” (2009).

Obama also argues against what he perceives as a loss of constitutional rights due the ‘safety measures’ adopted by the previous administration.  He contends that the founding fathers—those who conceived and composed the document that bequeathed the “rights of man” (2009) to all Americans—endured dangers from enemies themselves—yet they understood that democracy demands the respect and application of our constitutional rights.


Obama speaks of an America imbued with courage, confidence, energy and compassion. He uses narrative to relate how previous generations of Americans “faced down fascism and communism…with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions” (2009). By describing the toils and troubles—as well as the successes—of America’s founders Obama evokes a strong spirit of patriotism and sense of pride. Further, Obama employs haunting imagery such as “the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages” (2009) to full advantage while extolling such core American values as virtue and love of freedom.

Speaking of American fortitude and invincibility—Obama illustrates how Americans are a people capable of begetting and embracing change; for those “who question the scale of our ambitions” Obama reminds his audience of the ambitious American spirit that has defined the American character—as exemplified by the many sacrifices, tradition of labor, progress and loyalty to liberty indelibly etched into America’s past.

To Conclude

President Barack Obama’s inaugural address is essentially a challenge to America. It is a clarion call for change and the start of a new era of responsibility. With an eye to the past as well as to the future, Obama utilizes the lessons of history to show how American’s have accepted change and assumed reliability. Using such Neo-Aristotelian tools as audience reception as well as those of Ethos, Logos and Pathos—Obama invites a global audience to share in both the challenges and successes of a new era in America.


A & E Television Networks. (2008). Barack Obama. Biography. Retrieved February 6, 2009,

from http://www.biography.com/featured-biography/barack-obama/bio2.jsp.

Charen, Mona. (2008, June 20). Oooh, The New Politics. Real Clear Politics.

Retrieved February 5, 2009 from


Foss, Sonja K. (2008, August 8). Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. Long Grove:


Obama, Barack. (2009, January 20). The 44th Presidential Inauguration. CNN.com. Retrieved

February 4, 2009 from http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/01/20/obama.politics/.



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