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The Inaugural Address: What To Expect

When Barack Obama takes the podium on January 20 to deliver his big speech, who will he name-check? What subjects will be verboten? USC communication professor Thomas Hollihan, an expert on rhetoric, offers a tip sheet for inauguration viewers.

Rediscovering the Word ‘Epideictic

When Barack Obama takes the podium to speak on January 20, he will join a centuries-old tradition: He will present an epideictic (ceremonial) speech commemorating the peaceful transfer of power.

At its core, the purpose of an inaugural speech is primarily ceremonial rather than political, although whenever an elected official or candidate speaks, one can assume the remarks will have political implications, says Thomas Hollihan, professor of communication at the USC Annenberg School.

“Ceremonial speeches come with a lot of attached expectations,” Hollihan notes. “An inaugural speech is very different from the annual State of the Union address. By its very nature, it’s a speech that celebrates the continuity of the compact between the people and the democratic process.”

Hollihan predicts: “There will be no detailed policy program outlined. This is a moment of coming together, of recognizing the past and the future. The people were deeply divided during the election campaign, but now all the votes have been counted and the newly elected president must present a message assuring all of the nation’s citizens that he will attempt to serve their interests and meet their needs.”

Hollihan adds that U.S. presidents are judged quickly on their ability to meet the expectations for the speech. Obama’s delivery should be serious and formal, without too much levity. “The discourse should be like a ‘political sermon,’” Hollihan says.

Inaugural addresses are crafted to recognize the current triumphs and tragedies of society — with deep connections to past collective struggles and triumphs. Hollihan outlines likely elements of Obama’s speech:

Do Expect References To

  • Abraham Lincoln — overcoming racial and civic divisions, wartime challenges
  • John F. Kennedy — a new era of the nation, with a young, vibrant leader
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt — using the power of the state to confront a depression, wartime challenges
  • Martin Luther King Jr. — societal change, overcoming racial and civic divisions
  • George W. Bush — acknowledging the service of the current president as power is transferred to the new one

Don’t Expect

  • Specific policy proposals
  • Joe the Plumber shout-outs
  • Introductory jokes

Possible Wild Card References

  • Ronald Reagan — a historical figure who until now has mostly been claimed by the Republicans

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The Inaugural Address: What To Expect

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