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Obama’s 2013 Inaugural: a doctor’s diagnosis

Published on 31 January 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

Put your finger to the pulse of language, and you will detect the heartbeat of conviction, the blood pressure of aspiration. The close reading of a speech does not simply expose stylistic flourishes, it provides an insight into the very fabric of the speaker’s thoughts and beliefs. Take Barack Obama’s 2013 Inaugural Address, for example. We find in it some signature rhetorical devices, all of which provide invaluable insights into his thinking and positioning. Let me start by naming a few of the most noticeable ones here.


The repetition of words at the beginning of successive sentences, known as anaphora, is exemplified in this speech by ‘Together,’ repeated three times, ‘We the people,’ repeated four times, and ‘Our journey is not complete until,’ repeated five times.  The message communicated by these refrains alone summarises the thrust of his speech: the way forward is through togetherness.


We also find some of Obama’s favourite metaphors, most notably of political progress as a journey, a ‘never-ending’ one in this instance, upon which we ‘move forward together’, the founding creed representing ‘the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears’. Some aspects of this journey, such as ‘the path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult,’ and overall the journey ‘is not complete until’ a series of aspirations have been achieved, requiring decisions over which ‘we cannot afford to delay.’ Journeys, in Obama’s rhetoric, are synonymous with progress, and depend for their success on determination and collaboration.

Kairos and the call of history

This journey metaphor in turn provides the impetus for Obama’s driving narrative, one which depicts the present moment as part of the inexorable advance of history, as a product of the forces which have shaped America since its founding, and as the pivot upon which the future of the country – and the world – depends. Obama exhorts his audience to recognise, and act upon, the opportune moment: ‘My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together’; ‘We must act’ (repeated twice); ‘let us answer the call of history’.  His whole speech can be seen as a call to balance the timelessness of America’s defining values with the demands of the actual moment, its challenges and opportunities. It is a speech which plays on the relationship between two Greek notions of time: chronos (quantitative, sequential time) and kairos (the opportune or supreme moment, qualitative in nature).


Although there are many more rhetorical devices worth analysing in his speech (allusions, synecdoche and other instances of what I term ‘stories in a capsule’), I would like to focus on a particular device, the “NOT X BUT Y” construction, which occurs in one form or another some twenty times in the space of a 2,200-word speech. In the opening address, we find it in: ‘what binds this nation together is not the colour of our skin…. What makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea.’

In the section about Health, the construction resonates twice over as: ‘these things [Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security] do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.’ In the section on Climate, we find that ‘America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations …  – we must claim its promise.’ In the section about Security and Foreign Policy, a peaceful resolution of differences is advocated ‘not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.’ Further on, Obama urges his countrymen to be a source of hope for the less fortunate and marginalised ‘not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires…’. Further examples abound.

What is the force of this construction?

First and foremost, the NOT X BUT Y construction is pre-emptive. It anticipates the objections that are likely to be raised, thus showing the speaker’s awareness of opposing approaches, and then promotes the speaker’s favoured approach as the wiser one. Whereas the exclusive promotion of one’s own view can come across as fist-thumping intransigence, this construction shows the speaker to be both cognisant of alternatives and seemingly balanced in their judgment.

This construction may also be used, by extension, to warn and chastise the other party. When Obama says that the oath he has sworn is ‘an oath to God and country, not party or faction’, he is clearly pointing a finger of blame, or at least wagging one in warning.

But behind this ostensible fair-mindedness lies the fallacy of false choice. Where there is a debate, there are usually many positions represented, several paths possible. NOT X BUT Y reduces the choice to a dichotomy, and often sets up the less-favoured option as a straw man. This may happen at various levels of subtlety, and represents the force of the construction: it allows for the clever whittling away of opposition through the careful prioritisation of one’s own stance.

Take for example the claim: ‘Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.’ As we know, progress may be characterised in many other ways than through this particular dichotomy, in which the first proposition is clearly a straw man, and the second, playing on the contrast between ‘for all time’ and ‘in our time’ presents itself as obviously the wiser option.

The alliterative language and sense of redress in this contrast is essentially poetic, as argued by Seamus Heaney in The Redress of Poetry. Musicality, combined with point and counterpoint (whether musical or conceptual), makes for a memorable mix, and a further advantage of the NOT X BUT Y construction is that such sentences are therefore more readily remembered, witness J. F. Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ The chiasmus, a criss-cross construction such as this in which word order is reversed, often incorporates the NOT X BUT Y format, and as I have argued elsewhere, provides a cadence of counterbalance that is central to effective rhetoric.

The NOT X BUT Y construction goes back to ancient times and is found across cultures, but of note is the argument that it characterises Jesus’ distinctive rhetorical voice (Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, Penguin, 2010:85): ‘Jesus had a trick of setting one proposition against an opposed proposition’, and whereas this contrapuntal approach was characteristic of Semitic debate at the time, Jesus broke from tradition by putting the emphasis on the second element. This rhetorical device occurs over 100 times in Mark, Luke and Matthew (the Synoptic Gospels), and is exemplified by: ‘With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.’ Obama, in tapping into this long-lived rhetorical tradition, is drawing on its ‘urgency, punchiness’ and memorability.

When does Obama use it and why?

Having established the force of this construction, we have to ask why does Obama use it so very frequently, and does it risk losing strength through repetition? The flip-side of this question is: when does Obama not use it? The answer is illuminating: the NOT X BUT Y construction occurs in every paragraph except those which consist of what I call ‘value-speak’, those which affirm America’s defining values. Here Obama adopts an assertive, anaphoric refrain, as exemplified by the ‘Together’ and ‘We, the people’ passages, especially where these crescendo into a repetition of conviction: ‘We believe that America’s prosperity must rest on…’; ‘We know that America thrives when…’; ‘We are true to our creed when…’.

Significantly, the value-speak passages often follow on from a NOT X BUT Y construction, and add force to the preferred option by elaborating upon it with strongly asserted conviction. This is the case in the Climate passage already cited (where the admonition not to resist the transition towards sustainable energy, but to seize it, and not to cede empowering technology but to claim its promise), which is followed by: ‘That is how we will maintain economic vitality…’; ‘That is how we will preserve our planet…’; ‘That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.’

I conclude with a hypothesis: that in order to get a reading of Obama’s trepidations, look out for the NOT X BUT Y construction, for it offers evidence of divergent views – a divergence often resolved through false choice. And in order to put your finger on the pulse of his most heart-felt convictions, you have to look at those areas in his talk where this particular construction is followed by value-driven, fist-thumping anaphora. In each case, we find that the notion of kairos is at play, of the critical moment which needs to be seized now, by the president and the people together.  

The Doctor’s diagnosis? Subtle, if self-defensive, positioning raised by the strong beat of value-speak.

Dr Biljana Scott lectures Language and Diplomacy with DiploFoundation.

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2 replies
  1. Biljana Scott
    Biljana Scott says:

    Thanks Aldo, you always
    Thanks Aldo, you always stretch my mind in new directions! Agreed, there’s lots more to be said about the influence of Black-American sermons on Obama’s rhetoric, both with regard to stylistic features such as call-and-response, rhythm and rhyme, and also with regard to their appeal to a collective consciousness which transcends the small-minded obstructivism of the individual, so thanks for the book reference! And thanks especially for your insight on the false-choice inherent in an appeal to kairos – I very much hope you’ll write a blog on this subject!

  2. Aldo Matteucci
    Aldo Matteucci says:

    Brilliant, Bi, simply
    Brilliant, Bi, simply brilliant. Two comments: first you may wish to expand on the “biblical rhetorical devices” Obama uses. In emerging America preachers formed the political narrative (see David D. HALL: Worlds of wonders, days of judgment. Popoular religious belief in early New England). This tradition underpins much of political discourse today, and is alien to secular Europe. Kairos: when making choices one is to agree on goal, means, and timing. Kairos closes the discussion on the first two, and subtly shifts the discussion to one of timing. This is more blatant “fallacy of false choice” than what you point to later on. It reduces the future to “history in the making”. Obama uses Kairos also to lay claim to historical continuity against the Teabaggers who lay claim to ownership of American history. Aldo

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