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Obama's inauguration speech, annotated
A great speech doesn't speak only to the audience at hand, even if that audience numbers in the billions and engulfs the globe. A great speech also speaks to the past.
For a better appreciation of Obama's address, we've highlighted passages in which the president seemed to be not just speaking to us, but also echoing those who have gone before. Instead of quoting a great many famous documents directly and frequently, Obama chose instead to touch upon them gently and gracefully.
"My fellow citizens" "Not my fellow Americans. That was the key here. He's playing up citizenship," said Bruce Buchanan, University of Texas government professor and author of "The Citizen's Presidency." "That was a novelty. It's almost universally 'My fellow Americans,' in modern times at least." In a speech that sounds the call to citizenship loudly, Obama returns to the word explicitly in his conclusion, saying that "giving our all to a difficult task" is "the price and the promise of citizenship."
"still waters of peace"
This phrase recalls the first two lines in the King James translation of Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters."
"set aside childish things"
This is a reference to the lines in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (13:11): "When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things." Stephen McKenna, chairman of the media studies department at Catholic University, said: "It's also a reference to his own victory speech, where he talked about the need to put away the 'partisanship, pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.'."
"our better history"
This phrase echoes the concluding phrase of Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address: "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
"their full measure of happiness"
An echo of the last line of the Gettysburg Address, in which Lincoln wrote, "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion."
"Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sahn"
The Battle of Concord (April 19, 1775) was part of the first military engagement of the Revolutionary War. The Union victory at Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) was the turning point in the Civil War. The invasion of Normandy by Allied troops (June 6, 1944) was a turning point in World War II. The siege of U.S. troops at Khe Sahn (Jan. 21 to April 8, 1968) was one of the bloodiest battles in the Vietnam War.
"This is the journey we continue today."
The word "journey" is more momentous and historically inflected than a flat, ordinary word such as "trip." Yet it isn't as pretentious or stuffy-sounding as "voyage" or "odyssey." It echoes proverbs such as "A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step."
"Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began."
While emphasizing the nation's strengths despite its economic travails, Obama echoes one of the central themes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inaugural address, arguing that the country has all it needs to renew prosperity, except for leadership and revived confidence. Roosevelt, speaking to a cold March audience in the midst of the 1933 banking crisis, similarly said, "Our crises come from no failure of substance. ... Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply."
"pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off."
This is an allusion to lines in the song, "Pick Yourself Up" (music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Dorothy Fields), sung in the Depression-era movie "Swing Time" by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: "Nothing's impossible, I have found./For when my chin is on the ground,/I pick myself up, dust myself off,/Start all over again."
"We will restore science to its rightful place."
The first of several direct repudiations of the Bush administration, which has been widely criticized for politicizing science in government. Later Obama said: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," a reference to what many saw as the subversion of the Constitution in the name of national security after the Sept. 11 attacks. Obama also references Hurricane Katrina and, calling to mind the course of action in Iraq, said that "our power" does not "entitle us to do as we please."
"not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."
Obama is trying to set aside the long-running argument over President Ronald Reagan's criticism, echoed by Republican leadership since, that government had grown too big.
While saying that the U.S. will stand up to those "inducing terror and slaughtering innocents," Obama uses language that recalls the biblical slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2:16 in which King Herod sought to induce terror and advance his aims by trying to kill the newborn Jesus: "When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were 2 years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi."
"Jews and Hindus--and non-believers."
Several scholars agree that this is the most overt reference in an inaugural speech to the fact that many Americans do not believe in a god. "This is inclusion by a very wide margin," said Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, an expert in presidential rhetoric at the University of Minnesota, perhaps in reaction to a campaign that was, at times, religiously divisive. "He kind of litanized the non-believers," said McKenna.
"A new era of responsibility."
"There's very little that's memorable" in the speech, Campbell said. "It's a speech that's full of crisis and demands. ... The most memorable phrase, I think, is the 'new era of responsibility.' That encapsulates the speech."
"Our Founding Fathers ... drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man"
"The big struggle in any institution is between change and continuity," said Campbell. "Obama represents change. So it's very important to hear the sound of continuity. He's saying, 'I believe in traditional ideals. I hold traditional values. I remember American history.'."
"these words read to the people"
These words came from a Dec. 23, 1776, Common Sense pamphlet by Thomas Paine. George Washington had it read to the Continental Army troops before crossing the Delaware River Dec. 25 and attacking Trenton successfully the next day. The more familiar part of the pamphlet is: "These are the times that try men's souls."
This phrase occurs 14 times in the Bible, such as in Psalm 103, verses 17-18: "But the loving kindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children, to those who keep his covenant and remember his precepts to do them."
"eyes fixed on the horizon"
This phrase recalls the 1965 folk song by Alice Wine "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," a civil rights movement anthem as well as the "Eyes on the Prize " documentary series about the civil rights movement that ran on public television in 1987 and 1990.