[On] Point to Ponder: The Four Expectations an Inaugural Address Demands


All presidents strive for a strong start to their term in office. Their first official opportunity to do so takes place on January 20 when they deliver their inaugural address. Tomorrow, President-elect Trump will give his first, and like every president before him, he will strive for a strong start.

Inaugural addresses provide incoming presidents with their “first official opportunity to wield the power of language”, noted by the late political science expert, Lee Sigelman.  Inaugural addresses are powerful. They come with myriad constraints. Like all speeches, they come with certain expectations. Like all major political addresses, they become part of history.

Most agree that Trump has a lot to prove. This is his first official political office. It was an especially heated, divisive campaign. He has a rocky relationship with the media. Strong opinions linger in conversations since the election, both in public and in private. There isn’t exactly a united feeling among Americans.

Can he succeed? What does Trump need to accomplish in order for this speech to be considered “rhetorically sound” – effective – a success? How can you watch Friday’s speech as a rhetorical critic?

More than 50 inaugural addresses precede Friday’s event (5 presidents did not give one). There are expectations attached to the event. All presidents face them. Let’s unpack them.

The 4 “Must-Haves” of Inaugural Speeches

Just like there are 3 branches of government, there are 3 branches of oratory – Deliberative (persuasive),  Judicial (used in courtrooms), and Epideictic (Celebratory). Inaugural addresses are epideictic in nature. Think graduation speeches, eulogies, roasts. The great Roman philosopher and orator Cicero said, “Epideictic orations are show-pieces. They indulges in a neatness and symmetry of sentences; the ornamentation is done with no attempt at concealment, but openly and avowedly. The epideictic oration has a sweet, fluent and copious style, with bright conceits and sounding phrases.” 

There are certain rhetorical expectations placed on a president for an inaugural address. According to leading rhetorical scholars Karlyn Campbell and Kathleen Jamieson, they fall into 4 “buckets.”

  • Unify the Audience: At an inauguration, the audience serves more as a witness to the ceremonial rite than an active participant. Who is in the audience? Everyone physically present, those watching from home, world leaders, citizens of the world, everyone who will watch the speech again on youtube, and everyone who will read the speech in the distant future until the end of time. (So it’s big.)
  • Re-state National Values and Venerate the Past: In other words, show your knowledge of what this office signifies, link yourself to previous presidents and the path our nation has traveled together. Quote past presidents, quote historical figures, and use similar language styles they used.
  • Set Forth Political Principles That Will Guide the New Administration: Talk about your goals (but not in an argumentative, defensive, campaign-like way). Inspire hope, suggest positive change, be action-oriented, talk a little shop, but not too much.
  • Enact the Presidential Role: Sound presidential. Look and act presidential. Be gracious. Thank the outgoing first family with sincerity. Speak in presidential language, using imagery, repetition of phrases, strategic pauses, alliteration, allegory, and parallelism. Be mindful of non-verbal communication. It all matters.

Note the use of parallelism in these famous inaugural addresses. (Parallelism happens when two clauses are related to through a reversal of structures to make a larger point):

  • “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”– Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865.
  • “This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt, March 4, 1933.
  • “My fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy, Jan. 20, 1961.
  • “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”– Bill Clinton, Jan. 20, 1993.

How to Watch Friday’s Inaugural Address

At the heart of being a skilled rhetorical critic lies the ability to assess the message and the speaker separate from personal opinions. Though challenging at times, especially when analyzing political rhetoric, it can be done.

When you watch the Inaugural this Friday, put on your “critical analysis hat.” Your opinion of him aside – whether for or against – see if President-elect Trump is able to meet these expectations. Decide for yourself if his rhetorical act was a success, a failure, or a mixture of both. Do you agree or disagree with the analysis from talk-show hosts? How did his language succeed or fail?

As I’ve said in previous posts – by and large – the audience always wants the speaker to win. Despite the controversies surrounding this election and the president-elect, many still want to see a successful speech.

Tune in next week for an analysis of the 2017 Inaugural Address.

Cindy Skalicky holds a master’s degree in Rhetorical Criticism and is the owner of On Point Communications, LLC. She coaches speakers – in person or virtually – on storytelling techniques, speech writing, presentation presence and overall content development. Master the Message with On Point. Contact Cindy today at: info@onpoint-communications.com


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