Different by Design

Different by Design

How President Obama's inaugural speech helped the world take a step forward. 

By David Brooks, DTM

It was neither written nor delivered in a style that most expected. It was light on oratorical flourishes. It was, instead, austere. It was President Barack Obama’s inaugural address and it was different by design.

Some may wonder, “Since Toastmasters is an international organization, why focus on an American president’s speech?” I’ve done so because this was a speech designed to transcend national boundaries. This was a speech to the U.S., but a message for the world.

Just as Nelson Mandela did in his 1994 inaugural (“…reinforce humanity’s belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul...”), and as Sir Winston Churchill did during and after World War II (his 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech, for example), President Obama delivered an address for a global audience.

And that is why the first address by Obama the president was different from those given by Obama the candidate. Applying a rapid-fire rhythm, candidate Obama whipped crowds into a frenzy with the fervor of an evangelist. His speeches were crafted into a crescendo, a steady increase in intensity climaxing with his familiar refrain: “Yes, we can!”

This was the style some expected in his inaugural address. Yet in his first address as president, Obama sounded different. He was restrained. Why? Campaign rallies are raucous events, so his campaign speeches were designed to motivate; his inaugural address was, instead, designed to differentiate.

In substance and style this was a speech to draw distinctions between Obama the candidate and Obama the president. It was also a speech to contrast old ideas with new ideals. Obama campaigned on a promise of change, and his speech reflected that theme in three distinct ways:

1. Change of tone. Inaugural addresses, though celebratory, are dignified occasions. As all good speakers know, your message and manner should match the moment. Obama’s signature campaign-speech style would have been considered as inappropriate as a sales pitch at a funeral. He dignified the occasion by appropriately replacing flamboyant exuberance with subtle eloquence.

For example:

  • “…we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned.”
  • “… we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united…”
  • “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

While reminding us greatness is not a given, it must be earned, he was humbly eloquent.

When he acknowledged problems of our past not with condemnation but with hope, he was reverently eloquent. And, when paraphrasing Indira Gandhi’s famous statement of peace, “You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist,” he was respectfully eloquent.

As an artistic speaker, on this day he wisely chose to paint his delivery in muted colors. Lesser-skilled speakers fail to adjust and adapt as circumstances and settings change. Yet, in this speech of differentiation, the change of tone from candidate Obama to President Obama appeared to be a message itself.

2. Change of direction. If President Obama’s difference in style was noticeable, his differences in substance were inescapable. Here he cited numerous differences between his policies and principles and those of the previous administration.

It was a striking contrast. Examine these statements:

  • “… we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”
  • “Our founding fathers…drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man…. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
  • “…our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed.”
  • “We will restore science to its rightful place...”
  • “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”
  • “And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders…”

These are all statements to differentiate. There is no doubt that collectively they shout: “Changes will be noticeable and numerous.”

The fact that he made these extraordinarily pointed distinctions is unusual. But the fact that he made them without implying they were personal rebukes is remarkable. He spoke with finesse rather than force.

Once again, President Obama said more by saying less. Yes, he refuted philosophies and principles and policies of the previous administration, and yes, he defined a dramatic contrast between past and present. Yet, he did not denigrate the occasion by placing blame.

Instead, he invited us to join him in a new era of responsibility and accountability with these words: “Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices…”

And that invitation led to the third change:

3. Change of attitude. President Obama signaled change with statements of unprecedented inclusiveness: “…our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.”

He signaled change with statements of respect: “With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat....”

And he signaled change with statements of responsibility: “…know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”

Some have suggested that this speech lacks one ringing line that will resonate as loudly as John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you…” or as eloquently as Lincoln’s “With malice toward none and charity for all…”

And though President Obama’s address may lack that single spectacular sound bite, in a mere 2,393 words he made his point: This speech was a signal that his presidency will be different by design. 

David Brooks, DTM, is a member of West Austin II Toastmasters in Austin, Texas, and the 1990 World Champion of Public Speaking. Reach him at www.DavidBrooksTexas.com.