All eyes on Obama’s inaugural speech

Expectations for Barack Obama’s inauguration address are high, with the nation facing a financial crisis at home and two wars abroad. But America’s future president has a wunderkind chief speechwriter and the Internet for help.


Inaugural speechwriting time in the USA is fraught with late-nighters and weary mornings, with reams of paper tossed around the bin.This is high-pressure time for US President-elect Barack Obama and his speechwriting team, because Americans expect to be moved to tears and to have the little hairs on their necks stand to attention during their presidents' inauguration speeches (transcript of Obama's inauguration speech).


So, it's hardly surprising that the Internet has jumped on to the inauguration addressomania bandwagon.


Weeks before Tuesday’s inauguration, visitors to the MixedInk-Slate inaugural address were invited to virtually write, edit and remix each other's words to come up with an online "People's Inaugural Address."


Another site offers a word game, where participants can match a snapshot of words culled out of four popular inaugural speeches with the US president who said it.


‘The closest thing to a coronation’


The Jan. 20 inauguration of the 44th - and first black - president of the USA promises to be one of the most celebrated in US history. The inauguration jamboree this year includes official and unofficial balls, luncheons, music concerts and impromptu street parties to name just a few of the featured events.


But behind the festivities, at the very heart of the matter, lies the inaugural address, which Obama will deliver after taking the oath of office.


From his pulpit before the imposing US Capitol building on Jan. 20 Obama will be expected to grip the nation, to reach out to its very soul, and to vocalize the hopes and dreams and fears of millions of Americans descended on Washington DC for his inauguration - and millions more glued to their TV sets. These Americans will also expect their president to address the myriad problems facing the nation, notably the financial crisis on the domestic front and America’s military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.


It's a tall order. But as every US President-elect knows, it's not one to be taken lightly.


"For Americans, inaugurations are the closest thing to a coronation," says Richard Norton Smith, a renowned political speechwriter and historian at the DC-based George Mason University. "Inaugural addresses are looked to for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is scanned for evidence of policy, but style is equally important."


Building legacies for 220 years


Ever since George Washington delivered his first presidential speech 220 years ago, US presidents have delivered inaugural addresses, some memorable, some less so.


In some notable cases, presidential legacies have been built on inaugural addresses. Faced with the Great Depression at his 1933 inauguration, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously proclaimed, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." In 1961, John F. Kennedy captivated the nation – and the world – with his deceptively simple, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."


"The most memorable addresses tend to be delivered by the most talked-about presidents," says Norton Smith. "John F. Kennedy's legacy lives on largely because of that inaugural address. Franklin D. Roosevelt's 'fear itself' speech is as relevant today as it was when he delivered it. Inaugural addresses can give us a moment that enters into the national collective memory."


From Chicago to the White House on the written - and spoken - word


This year, expectations for the inaugural address are high. America's first black president is an accomplished writer and best-selling author. Analysts agree that it was his oratory skills that propelled a young community activist from Chicago's South Side on to the national political arena.


In 2004, Obama was a young, relatively unknown black politician when he delivered his "Audacity of Hope" speech at the Democratic National Convention and caught the nation's attention. A year later, he was elected to the US Senate from Illinois and, just four years later, he clinched his White House bid.


"He's certainly a writer, he has a gift," says Douglas Wilson, a literature professor at the Illinois-based Knox College. "Obama has a gift for putting things very clearly, he has clarity."


A leading scholar of former US President Abraham Lincoln's writing and author of the award-winning book, "Lincoln's Sword," Wilson believes Obama will look to his fellow Illinoians when shaping his speech.


It's a common custom for presidential writers – and speechwriters - to review previous inaugural addresses.


In Lincoln's case, Wilson says, the 16th president of the United States, "actively resisted all suggestions that other people might write his speeches."


It turned out to be sound counsel. Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg address is widely viewed as one of the greatest in American history.


A wunderkind head speechwriter


The times have changed and politicians rarely deliver unedited, unassisted addresses. But Obama is known to have a particularly hands-on approach to his speeches.


During the 2008 campaign, Obama aides disclosed that the candidate writes his major speeches late at night after a day's work.


The late night sessions, according to a report by Time magazine, typically produce long texts, which are then shared with a select few advisors, including Jon Favreau, Obama's wunderkind 28-year-old head speechwriter. Favreau, who started his speechwriting career shortly after his graduation during the 2004 presidential campaign, has been appointed Obama’s director of speechwriting.


While most Americans will be looking to Obama to address the dire economic situation, the message, according to Norton Smith, should be delivered with a rhetorical flourish.


"When you listen to an inaugural address, you come away thinking, 'I have a sense of who this person is, rather than what he is proposing'," says Norton Smith. "The inaugural address tends to be more poetic, more broadly thematic."


That's a lesson contributors at the People's Inaugural Address site seem to be heeding.


After weeks of online collaborative writing by 454 people, the People’s Inaugural Address is ready. “In our time we can fix the bridges and rebuild the roads that the American economy might thrive far into the future,” it reads. “In our time we can stop the oceans from rising, curb pollution, and protect our planet and the planet of our children.”


It remains to be seen if anyone on the presidential speechwriting team is listening.



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