Why Biden’s Inaugural Address SucceededBreaking News
tags: inauguration, presidential speeches, Political rhetoric, Joseph Biden
Political speeches follow a surprisingly simple set of rules—or at least the successful ones do. Newly sworn-in President Joe Biden observed them all in his inaugural address. Although his 20 minutes at the lectern are not likely to be parsed and studied for rhetorical flourishes, with this speech Biden accomplished something more important: He signaled how he will approach this job and this moment in history.
The first rule in political rhetoric is authenticity. Does the essence of the speech—its vocabulary, its rhythms, its cadences, its tendencies toward “plain” versus “fancy” tone—match the essence of the speaker? Does the rhetoric call attention to itself? Or does it mainly serve to transmit the mood, intention, and ideas the speaker hopes to convey?
Martin Luther King Jr. was modern America’s greatest rhetorician. But the very words and cadences of his speeches that have gone down in history—“I’ve been to the mountaintop … I’ve seen the promised land”—would have sounded forced and stagey from most other prominent Americans. They would not have rung true even from the first Black president, Barack Obama, whose single greatest speech—his “Amazing Grace” elegy for the victims of the racist gun massacre in Charleston, South Carolina—was delivered at the historic Mother Emanuel Church, where King himself once spoke.
Obama’s eloquence, as I once argued here, is in the paragraph-scale development of ideas, rather than the sentence-by-sentence coinage of standalone phrases. The American politician I can most imagine presenting a Martin Luther King speech and sounding authentic would have been Barbara Jordan, the late Democratic Representative from Texas—who indeed gave a very King-like speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1976.
When it comes to rhetoric, many politicians would love to be considered another King, another FDR, another Jordan, another Churchill. But the wisest of them aspire to sound like the best possible version of themselves. (And the wisest of speechwriters aspire to make their own work invisible—to serve, in essence, as glaziers, creating transparent panes through which the speaker’s intent can be most clearly seen.)
Joe Biden sounded like the best version of himself on Inauguration Day. Few if any of the sentences he uttered will be chiseled into marble. The exception illustrating the rule was Biden’s summary statement about foreign policy: “We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.” This line, which he has used in other speeches (and which Bill Clinton also used in his speech nominating Obama back in 2008), was both a distillation of a swing away from Trumpism (as Fred Kaplan observed) and a handy case study of the rhetorical technique called chiasmus, or reversing terms. (Homely example: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s …” High-flown example: “Ask not what your country can do for you …”)
But the speech in its entirety was admirably plain and direct, and therefore plausible. It sounded not like John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama or Franklin D. Roosevelt or any other Democratic president, but like Joe Biden. It sounded like the vice president who served loyally for eight years under Obama, like the candidate who struck and stayed true to a “Can’t we just get along?” tone from the start of his 2020 campaign, like the president-elect who would not rise to the bait of Donald Trump’s taunts or sink to the depths of his discourse but instead calmly reasserted his plans to address the nation’s crises. (But it also sounded like the person who had learned from the bitter fights Obama had when trying to get his legislation and nominees approved, and from the assault on the democratic process itself launched by Trump and many of his allies.) The speech’s tone matched the speaker, and thus the tone was right.