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Grading the Inaugural Address

January 22, 2013

Inside Higher Ed asked professors who are experts in rhetoric, political communication or inaugural history to grade President Obama's second inaugural address. The panelists were asked to comment not on the president's policies, but on the speech. The experts generally gave Obama good grades, but nothing higher than an A-.

Here are the reviews (in alphabetical order by expert):

William Brown, chair of the department of strategic communication and journalism at Regent University: B. The speech was an overall good delivery but not a memorable address. I doubt that many people will go away recalling any specific lines from the speech. The emotional energy seemed to be lower than that exhibited on previous important speeches. I would say emotionally that it was a bit flat. His demeanor also seemed to show a bit of tension or irritability, perhaps as he was addressing his detractors. I could not tell exactly what the emotion was but it was a negative emotion. I do not think he smiled one time during the speech. My overall grade of B is probably generous. The speech lacked transcendence. I predict the speech will not be remembered. (Professor Brown sent along a complete grading rubric he uses, and assigned the speech the following scores on 20-point scales: Organization - 17; Topic knowledge - 18; Audience adaptation - 16; Language use - 17; Delivery -17.)

Stephen J. Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington and author of Spinner in Chief: How Presidents Sell Their Policies and Themselves: A-. President Obama's second inaugural address was better than most second term inaugural addresses, many of which have engaged in too much short-term score-settling or ephemeral policy-heavy discourse. Obama instead presented his vision of America as a collaborative enterprise where citizens are bound to each other as a way of protecting all of us against unexpected tragedies and storms in the years ahead. From the effective references to the founders to the tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., Obama gave a compelling sermon on that day every four years when many citizens worship together at the American church.

Kathleen E. Kendall, research professor of communication at the University of Maryland at College Park and author of Communication in the Presidential Primaries: Candidates and the Media, 1912-2000: B+. A great inaugural speech inspires the listeners through eloquent language, helping them to reflect on the nation’s communal values. It provides historical continuity for the presidency, as the president addresses his future goals, creating a real sense of the whole people’s unity. President Obama’s second inaugural had moments of greatness, on this date of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, as when he tied his speech closely to King’s "I Have a Dream"  speech, both in parallel language and in his theme of equality. In ringing and confident phrases echoing King as well as President John F. Kennedy, he noted that "our journey is not complete,"  that "this generation of Americans" has been "tested by crises" and possesses the qualities the world demands. "My fellow Americans," he pledged, "we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together." He fell short, however, by inserting sections of the speech more appropriate to a State of the Union message, enumerating specific policy measures for particular attention. If one views the inaugural ceremony in its entirety, perhaps the most successful moment was Richard Blanco’s reading of his original poem, "One Today," which provided a narrative of vivid unifying images for the American people.

Mitchell S. McKinney, professor of communication and director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri at Columbia and co-author of Communication in the 2008 U.S. Election: Digital Natives Elect a President: B+. Barack Obama’s second inaugural address was an interesting fusion of celebratory rhetoric – which we usually expect of presidents who have just taken the oath of office – and also deliberative rhetoric with specific policy pronouncements on such matters as climate change, health care, education and fiscal matters. Still, the president appropriately sought to unify the nation with his "We, the People" refrain, calling for shared sacrifice and a renewed commitment to the promise of equality for all, a principle that has guided our nation "through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall." In general, this was a more optimistic address than his first inaugural, and Barack Obama’s delivery seemed more confident with a sense of urgency as “a decade of war is now ending.” Over all, a fitting speech for a nation ready for its government and leaders to join together and take action on the many pressing problems facing our country.

Martin J. Medhurst, professor of rhetoric and communication at Baylor University and creator of the website Presidential Rhetoric: C+. President Obama delivered a powerful, though clearly partisan address. It may be the most left-leaning inaugural since FDR's first. Obama clearly signaled that he intends to pursue a progressive agenda -- from climate change to gay marriage to alternative energy sources. While proclaiming common purpose in one breath, he attacked the opposition party with the next. The address tacked back and forth between appeals for unity and proclamations of commitment to progressive policy choices.  It was not a speech for the ages.

Theodore F. Sheckels, professor of English and communication studies at Randolph-Macon College and co-author of the textbook Perspectives On Political Communication: A Case Approach: B+. The address was very well-delivered. It attempted to deliver a progressive, populist message wrapped up in traditional patriotic language. In embracing the many, it did, however, exclude the few -- not just "the shrinking few" but those who have reservations about global warming or additional government spending (even in the case of disasters)  as well as those who would like the United States to be more aware of dangers to peace in the world and more assertive in addressing them. A good inaugural unites. This one unites what Obama hopes will be a sizable majority to pursue a progressive, populist agenda, but it also pushes some to the side and may even suggest that they are outside the national vision he is seeking to create.

Gerald R. Shuster, professor of communication at University of Pittsburgh: B / B+. -- Clearly Obama's second inaugural was not the spellbinding speech that some might have expected and it was interspersed with idealistic and aggressive rhetoric -- combining references to the Declaration of  Independence with the admonition of what the nation needs to do to adhere to those ideals. To do so, he drew many analogies, and examples -- past- and present-focused -- and balanced persuasion with direction, and hope. He provided scenarios with and without adherence to focusing on needs for all audiences under all circumstances. Surprisingly he got somewhat specific on areas of controversy and used unity as the underlying theme to achieve the objectives. Thus the tone of the speech was far more serious than some expected and that gave credibility to his purpose and resolve. Audience analysis and identification of audience needs in particular were much in evidence. One of the major deficiencies -- lack of a hard-hitting motivational intro. Yes, he had the physically present audience in his hand, but the same can't be said for the electronic and social media audience.

Mary E. Stuckey, professor of communications and political science at Georgia State University and author of Defining Americans: The Presidency and National Identity: A- / B+. He clearly articulated a governing agenda, based on principles grounded in American foundational documents, that was consistent with his campaign. He had a vision of the meaning of the national union (mutual obligation enacted through government), of the U.S. place in the world (we can lead, we can make enemies our friends) and of his role in history (as heir to and custodian of a trajectory of inclusion and equality). The weakness was a rather awkward emphasis on policy in the middle. Despite that, the overall speech was gracefully done, with echoes of Lincoln and FDR. It will likely be remembered for its mentions of gay rights and for his insistence that the journey is unfinished and possibly for his argument that our national principles endure but national policy must change to fit context.

Ronald C. White Jr., author of A. Lincoln: A Biography and Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural: B+. "We, the People," became the foundation for a Second Inaugural in which President Obama offered his vision of the recent conservative buzzwords "American exceptionalism." What makes us exceptional, he told us -- from Seneca Falls, to Selma, to Stonewall, will be an inclusive nation where everyone enjoys the full rights promised in the Declaration of Independence. The speech renewed many campaign themes -- "we are not a nation of takers"; we must "care for the vulnerable." I believe this was a stirring speech but not one of his finest speeches. Despite its foundation, he tried to do too much, and spoke throughout in the same intense tone. The speech will serve as a "guiding star" for his intentions in the next four years.

 

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