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What Obama’s inaugural speech achieved – and what it didn’t

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Ever since John Kennedy called a generation to serve its country, the call for national rededication has become an important element of the civil religion that is US political ceremony. Obama did this deftly, calling on the nation to “set aside childish things” and to begin the work of remaking America.
“For everywhere we look, there is work to be done,” he said.

By putting the bad economy in the context of a need for national renewal, and by intimating that this renewal will take some time, the president may have skillfully deflected the notion that his very election – and perhaps a quick $800 billion stimulus package – will pull the economy out of its spiral by March.

In any case, that is what Gerald Shuster, an expert in presidential rhetoric and political communication at the University of Pittsburgh, suggests.

“If you had 10 speakers up there, they all would have alluded to the fact that we’re facing crises. What Obama managed to do is manage our expectations” about quick solutions, says Dr. Shuster.

Obama’s speech evoked the words of three presidents in particular, according to Shuster. JFK was one. Some phrases echoed Lincoln. And Obama closed by quoting Thomas Paine's words of hope that George Washington ordered to be read at the low point of Valley Forge.

The new president continued a recent tradition by thanking his predecessor for service to the nation. Despite the gratitude, ex-President Bush might not have liked the speech.

“I was watching President Bush and he wasn’t smiling, and I could see why,” says Dr. Ribuffo. “He specifically criticized a lot of the Bush administration’s policies.”

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