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Barack Obama's Inaugural Address | Study Guide

Barack Obama

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Barack Obama's Inaugural Address | Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Early Life and Political Rise of Barack Obama

Barack Obama was born in 1961 in Hawaii to an American mother and Kenyan father. After his parents' divorce and his mother's remarriage, Obama lived in Indonesia for several years, eventually returning to Hawaii to live with his mother and his maternal grandparents. A 1983 graduate of Columbia University, Obama worked in publishing and then as a community organizer in some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods, working with various local groups to develop improved resources for residents. He then decided to pursue his law degree at Harvard University.

After graduating from Harvard in 1991, Obama returned to Illinois. He became actively involved in the Democratic party, working on voter registration in predominantly African American neighborhoods and campaigning for candidates. Still working as a college lecturer and attorney, Obama ran for and was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996. In 2004, he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

At the time Obama won his Senate seat, he was experiencing newfound celebrity after delivering a well-received keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He became known for his skill as a public speaker. By February 2007, only two years into his Senate term, Obama announced that he would seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. His campaign broke private fundraising records at the time.

In November 2008, 47-year-old Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, beating longtime Republican senator John McCain (1936–2018). He won 53 percent of the popular vote. The first black president, Obama won both traditionally Democratic and some traditionally Republican states. On January 20, 2009, Obama delivered his first inaugural address in front of an estimated 1.8 million people, the largest crowd to ever attend an inauguration.

Traditional Introduction

Barack Obama delivered his first inaugural speech on Tuesday, January 20, 2009. It was the first inaugural address to be available via YouTube. As he begins his speech, Obama follows the practice of earlier presidents in acknowledging his thanks to the American people. Obama also acknowledges the contributions of outgoing president George W. Bush, who was in office from January 2001 until January 2009.

Addressing the Recession

Obama refers to the crisis the country is facing and then launches a call to action. He discusses the severe recession that had begun the year before, brought on because banks had overinvested in subprime mortgages, a type of home loan made to borrowers with poor credit histories. Eventually, banks and financial institutions were no longer able to sell off these investments, sparking a crisis. American housing prices began to decline. Homeowners could no longer borrow against the value of their home. Others could no longer afford the ballooning adjustable-rate mortgages—loans with interest rates that can be changed—that they had too easily been given by banks. The problems in the housing market had a ripple effect on the rest of the U.S. economy. Obama acknowledges this with examples such as businesses closing and lost jobs. He says that the crisis was brought on by the "greed and irresponsibility" of some groups (specifically, banks) but also a larger failure of government to see what was coming and stop it in time.

Hope for a New Era

After acknowledging the challenges at hand, Obama reassures the nation that its present and future are not hopeless. He stresses hope and unity, two major themes of his campaign. He also asks Americans to move past divisions and discord. Noting that the United States is considered a young country, he uses this idea to urge Americans to move into a new phase. Referring to a Bible passage, he says that "the time has come to set aside childish things." This is a paraphrase of a well-known line in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians in the New Testament. With this reference, Obama suggests his personal religious ties as well as his view that the country should enter a new political phase. However, what he looks forward to is also a traditional American idea: everyone is equal, and all people should have a chance to succeed.

History and Sacrifice

While looking forward to a better era, Obama also stresses that the country must work hard to achieve its great promise. As is often done in inaugural speeches, Obama reviews the story of the nation's history and values. He points to the contributions and sacrifices made by immigrants, slaves, and soldiers. He mentions Concord, a reference to the first battle of the American Revolution (1775–83) and Gettysburg, a battle that was a turning point during the Civil War (1861–65). He refers to the 1944 Invasion of Normandy (or D-Day), when American forces joined allies during World War II (1939–45) to launch a huge operation that ultimately helped end the war. He also mentions Khe Sanh, a major battle during the Vietnam War (1954–75). All of these examples, he says, show that Americans have struggled and worked to overcome hardships and made a strong country for future generations.

Vision of Change

Obama describes the country's next steps as the "journey we continue today," a continuation of the illustrious history he reviewed. He reminds those listening that while national circumstances have changed, the spirit—particularly, the industriousness—of the American people has not. Obama also indicates dissatisfaction with the previous administration, as he does several times during the speech. Here, he dismisses habits of "standing pat" and "protecting narrow interests," parallels to the "greed and irresponsibility" he mentions closer to the beginning of his speech.

Obama highlights various parts of the U.S. economy that need to be improved quickly. He outlines a multipronged approach to tackling the current economic crisis: infrastructure, science, technology, health care, environmental programs, and education. These are areas that presidents traditionally vow to improve. However, Obama is also quietly pointing to criticisms he had made of the Bush administration. For example, he promises to "restore science to its rightful place." Critics of Bush had objected that Bush ignored and undervalued scientific research and expertise. Climate scientists had railed against how the Bush administration resisted the fact that there was almost unanimous scientific agreement about the causes and consequences of global warming. Others had objected to the Bush administration's ban on embryonic stem-cell research.

Obama says that there is much work to be done, and he knows that some doubt he can achieve the changes he has proposed. He responds with optimism, saying that free people who use imagination, cooperation, and courage can achieve a great deal.

During his first term in office, Obama would have mixed success persuading Congress to agree with his various approaches to reinvigorating the economy. Instituting affordable health care coverage became perhaps the hallmark of his administration. The Affordable Health Care Act was passed and signed into law in March 2010. Often referred to as the ACA, the law is also widely known by its nickname, "Obamacare." It extended affordable (and mandatory) health insurance to Americans previously unable to afford it. The legislation also prohibited insurers from denying coverage to people with preexisting health conditions. The ACA was significantly less comprehensive than Obama's original proposals, as is often the case with major legislation. However, under the ACA, approximately 20 million people gained health coverage.

Big Government and Bipartisanship

Obama anticipates arguments from those who might doubt his plans for lifting the country out of crisis. He acknowledges that many Americans are skeptical about what the federal government is capable of achieving and dislike the concept of big government (the political idea of a government that by virtue of its size, budget, or responsibilities is very involved in the lives of citizens). Obama reassures those listening that he will only pursue what works and will abolish those programs that cost too much and accomplish too little.

A hallmark of Obama's reputation both in the U.S. Senate and on the campaign trail was his rejection of the idea that Democrats and Republicans could not compromise when necessary. Obama was widely known to be a proponent of not just bipartisanship, but nonpartisanship, preferring to stress common concerns and purposes. He had some success in working with those outside of his party. From shortly after his inauguration until the midterm congressional elections of 2010, Obama encountered relatively little resistance in Congress to his many of plans. This cooperation lessened dramatically after the 2010 elections, when many Republicans pushed back against the breadth of Obama's ideas.

Promise to Withdraw Troops and Lead by Diplomacy

As Obama enters the second half of his address, he leaves the topic of the economic crisis momentarily and moves on to national defense. In this section of the speech, Obama signals his intention to take a new, more diplomatic approach to foreign policy while also reaffirming the country's commitment to protect its own citizens first.

The day Obama took office, he also took on the responsibility of not only one but two wars. U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan had been ongoing since shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. President Bush deployed troops to fight against the Taliban, a radical Islamist faction associated with al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that carried out the September 11 attacks. By early 2009, U.S. forces and allies were trying to prevent a Taliban resurgence and protect a still fledging government. At the same time, the Iraq War was also being fought. This military action was launched in 2003 by Bush, who argued it was necessary as part of the fight against terrorism. In particular, the Bush administration claimed that Iraq had come to possess weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)—biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. This did not turn out to be the case, but even when the lack of WMDs was clear and Iraq's authoritarian leader, Saddam Hussein (1937–2006), had been deposed, the United States found it extremely difficult to end operations in Iraq. The Iraq War would officially continue until 2011, and intervention in Afghanistan would continue throughout Obama's administration.

During his campaign, Obama repeatedly explained his intentions to withdraw troops from both Afghanistan and Iraq. Those promises appear again in his inaugural address. Obama had also earlier emphasized the need for diplomacy with foreign nations and leaders. As a senator, Obama was critical of President Bush and the use of secret CIA detention sites, as well as the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. The decision of the Bush administration to use torture against suspected terrorists was also met with condemnation by many. These criticisms surface again during Obama's inaugural speech as he refuses the idea of having to make a "choice between our safety and our ideals." Obama describes American power as not only its military and economic strength, but also the country's history of leading the world by example.

Obama's Kenyan Roots

Obama mentions his father twice in his inaugural speech. It is from his father that Obama received his name. Obama's father, Barack Obama Sr., was born in Kenya. He married President Obama's mother, S. Ann Dunham (1942–95), while they were both studying at the University of Hawaii. The couple divorced not long after, and the future president only saw his father once more before the elder Obama died in 1982.

Some of Obama's opponents emphasized his African roots, suggesting that he was not really or fully American. While Obama did not grow up with close ties to his father or his Kenyan family, he embraced the African part of his identity. In mentioning his father in his inaugural address, Obama conveys that he sees no conflict between his ties to Kenya and his full, authentic Americanness. He would not worry about opponents who would remind the public of his ties in order to discredit him—he would remind the public himself, pushing back against the idea that such ties could discredit him in any way.

A Patchwork, not a Melting Pot

Having affirmed that American ideals remain in place even in uncertain and frightening times, Obama describes how diversity is a key strength of the country. Leaving behind a traditional "melting pot" description of the United States, Obama describes a "patchwork" of cultures and faiths. He mentions various faiths practiced by Americans, as well as nonbelievers. This description of Americans' religious traditions is constructed to be widely inclusive.

Obama argues that the diversity of the United States helps it to act as a global leader for peace. Acknowledging the tensions between the United States and the Muslim world, he speaks directly to Muslims in nations around the globe of his hope to start new, peaceful conversations. Obama differentiates between the vast majority of peaceful Muslims and radical Islamic terrorist groups that threaten the United States.

Obama's use of "patchwork" to describe the various races, ethnicities, and faiths of the American people is in some ways a departure from his past approach to discussing race. Obama had often downplayed racial divisions in favor of emphasizing American unity. This set him apart from some earlier major African American politicians, such as former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson (b. 1941). In his celebrated 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, Obama stated, "there's not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."

In his inaugural speech, the metaphor of the patchwork acknowledges the different, distinct identities contained within the country. This image may be interpreted as an alternative to the classic melting pot metaphor often used to describe the United States—the idea that many different groups come together and blend into a new, unified culture. However, the patchwork image avoids a major pitfall of the melting pot metaphor, which has been criticized as erasing the specific identities of the country's many groups in order to stress the concept of a unified whole. The patchwork metaphor conveys both the unity of the whole country and the distinct and valuable identities of the groups within it.

Addressing Dictatorships and Foreign Aid

Obama discusses other areas of foreign policy, previewing his diplomatic approach to various situations. He speaks first to dictators. Obama admonishes them but does not threaten them, offering aid concurrent with any change in how they treat their people. At the time of Obama's address, the United States was keeping a close eye on a number of global leaders. Russia had recently become more aggressive toward its neighbors, and China had become a much stronger force in the world economy. North Korea remained unpredictable, and Pakistan's definition as friend or foe in the war on terror was uncertain. Cuba and Venezuela were both led by governments known for being oppressive. Iran's nuclear program was also a source of worry.

Obama also addresses those impoverished and suffering around the world. He speaks of the responsibility of nations of plenty, such as the United States, to assist those with less. Obama had spoken of this responsibility during presidential debates, tempering the need to help with the need to recognize that aid also requires valuable American resources. In an October 2008 debate, Obama described the role of diplomacy and working with allies when it comes to foreign aid: "But understand that there's a lot of cruelty around the world. We're not going to be able to be everywhere all the time. That's why it's so important for us to be able to work in concert with our allies."

A Call for Sacrifices Large and Small

Obama moves from speaking to the rest of the world to speaking to those American soldiers deployed around the world. He describes the sacrifices they make as they live far from home, facing uncertainty and danger in foreign deserts and mountains.

Obama had run on a campaign of withdrawing U.S. troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan. Withdrawal from Iraq, while far from simple, was smoother than withdrawal from Afghanistan. The month after taking office, Obama announced that he would reduce troops in Iraq from 160,000 soldiers to 50,000 in about a year and a half. By the end of Obama's first term in office, only 150 U.S. soldiers remained in Iraq. (That number would again rise in later years.)

Withdrawal from Afghanistan would take longer, and a full withdrawal would not be accomplished even by the end of Obama's second term. Only weeks after delivering this inaugural speech, Obama committed 17,000 more American troops to the conflict. In December of 2009, Obama committed 30,000 more troops. A withdrawal finally began in 2011, and Afghanistan as an active combat zone was considered finished in December 2014. However, a strong U.S. military presence remained in place after Obama left office, as forces attempted to squelch the resurgence of the Taliban.

Obama transitions from thanking U.S. troops to encouraging his listeners to follow those troops' spirit of sacrifice and courage. This transition marks Obama's return to the call to action earlier in the speech. Some political observers noted that this focus on shared sacrifice was in contrast to what many considered the limited sacrifices asked for by Bush presidency, often criticized for granting large tax cuts to the country's wealthiest individuals.

Price and Promise of Citizenship

After asking the American people for the shared sacrifice necessary to weather and recover from the struggles facing the country, Obama explains why they are capable. Despite unfamiliar challenges, Americans can solve them by falling back on the values that have proven them strong enough again and again. Obama, citing the "price" of citizenship, indicates that Americans have a responsibility to work to improve the country and the world. He says this is also the "promise" of citizenship—Americans have confidence in values such as liberty, equality, and progress. Obama uses himself as an example of how the country can change: a black man elected president in a country where segregation existed only about a half-century earlier.

Analogy to Washington Crossing the Delaware

Obama refers to an earlier president as he concludes his speech. He describes how George Washington (1732–99) rallied his troops in 1776, coming back from a defeat by the British. Obama uses the story as an analogy to express how the American people will weather the current economic crisis, fighting back against a bleak situation and triumphing.

Obama tells the story of how General Washington had a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine (1737–1809) read aloud to all of his troops. The soldiers had been recently forced back from New York City and New Jersey by British troops. Washington hoped that Paine's inspirational words would rally troops' spirits. Shortly thereafter, Continental army soldiers crossed the icy Delaware River to successfully battle the British in Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey. These victories are considered integral to the eventual outcome of the American Revolution.

Obama promises Americans that the current economic crisis and other national challenges will be overcome, just as the Continental army overcame enormous odds with hope, determination, and grit. A month later, Obama took his administration's first major step in tackling the crisis, signing into law a $787 billion economic stimulus package enacted by Congress. (Later figures show that the stimulus package ultimately totaled around $832 billion.) The bank bailouts and other measures made possible by this legislation helped turn around the nation's GDP, although unemployment continued to rise.

Impact of Obama's Inaugural Address

Obama's speech as a national call to action (the word new is used 11 times and our is used 67 times) is a hallmark of many other presidential inaugural speeches. Some presidential scholars point out that there may not be a specific line that will go down in the history books. However, they also highlight the speech's resemblance to other inaugural speeches delivered in times of national troubles. President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural speech, delivered on March 4, 1865, attempted to unite a country devastated by its first and only civil war with a message of reconciliation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural speech, in 1933, reassured those suffering the worst economic recession in the country's history that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." In a line similar to the theme of sacrifice running throughout Obama's speech, President John F. Kennedy said in his 1961 inaugural speech, "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."

Obama is remembered for the themes of hope, unity, and hard work that appear in his speech. Early in his first term, Obama passed a major economic stimulus package to address the recession. The economy did recover, although some critics argue that the Obama administration was too soft on the banks that had helped create the crisis. Obama succeeded in passing a major health care reform bill in his first term. He went on to be elected to a second term. Throughout his presidency, Obama earned a reputation as an eloquent speaker who combined a strong intellect, empathy, and determination.

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