The metaphor is the message: Obama’s inauguration speech

by | Jan 21, 2009 | Blog, Improve your writing | 1 comment

I set the alarm clock for 3.30am Sydney time, and woke up with such excited anticipation that I would witness live – if halfway around the world – the inauguration of President Barack Obama. While I am not a citizen of the USA, I am a permanent resident, and I am so proud to feel part of the nation that has transformed itself in little under two years. The United States is really the most remarkable nation on earth for its capacity to renew itself in this fashion. I am stumped trying to think of another country that could so thoroughly transform itself from entrenched division and band together behind a relatively inexperienced but deeply impressive candidate for the highest office in the land, and the world.

Here is the full text of Obama’s inauguration speech. Many pixels and column inches will be devoted to analysis and review of the speech by people who are paid to do such things. I was struck by Obama’s selective but powerful use of metaphor at critical points in his address, which was both grave and challenging, sobering as well as inspiring.

I was most impressed by the way he described his approach to dealing with totalitarian regimes:

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist. 

This statement is powerful for its truth and for the simplicity of its metaphor, which says everything we need to know about his foreign policy approach. As Obama spoke I thought of the more than 600 writers and journalists around the world imprisoned for daring to speak their mind. Americans (and Australians) often take their freedom of speech for granted but the upholding of the freedom of expression is the main reason I am a member of Sydney PEN, which advocates on behalf of writers who are detained, harassed or imprisoned for their views.

Obama ended his inaugural address as he began (a useful rhetorical/structural device for aspiring writers) with a metaphorical invocation of the natural elements. He contrasted the more common “rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace” with the extraordinary and serious circumstances we face as he takes office, “amidst gathering clouds and raging storms”. Concluding his address to his fellow citizens and to the world, he quoted Lincoln and then extended the weather metaphor, linking it beautifully to the notion of the journey on which he, and all of us, are now embarked:

“Let it be told to the future world… that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive… that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

May Obama enjoy the health and personal safety necessary to attempt the journey. The world smiles and holds its breath, and looks to the horizon.

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