Delivery and Pathos: 2009 Presidential Inaugural Address

Abraham Miller

I dedicate this piece to my parents who have been my role models and continue to inspire me to be a better person. Without them, I would not be in the position or be afforded the opportunities I have today.

Keywords: Pathos, Delivery, Political Rhetoric, Inauguration

With more than 35 million people tuning into the 2009 Presidential Inauguration, the United States saw a new President grab the reins of the most important political position in the country (Lust). The Inaugural Address brought with it the departure of President George W. Bush and the arrival of a new leader, President Barack Obama. As someone who watched the event on television in my middle school classroom, the event resonates with me as a monumental moment in American history. Barack Obama’s Inaugural speech is powerful in terms of delivery and pathos, which will be the focus of this chapter.

Inaugural addresses are important for the country and its citizens to see their new leader as a spokesperson for the United States. People from across the world, focus their attention on the new President and the address for the country. Inaugural addresses offer the opportunity for the President to envision the country by outlining objectives and goals for the administration. Inaugural speeches, as the first speech given as President, serve as exceedingly important works, which serve to highlight a President’s delivery and rhetorical effectiveness. As the first Black President, the 2009 Inaugural ceremony serves as a testament to the growth of the country, a theme in President Obama’s speech.

Pathos is one of the three aspects of persuasion presented by Greek philosopher Aristotle. Pathos refers to the “power with which the writer’s (speaker’s) message moves the audience to his or her desirable emotional action” (Mshvenieradze). The ability to use emotions to captivate an audience is very important for a speaker when delivering a speech. President Obama employs emotion to describe the shared experience of hardships for the country by which the country will collectively rebound. Generally speaking, emotions are one of the most important factors leading to persuasion.

Leading up to the 2009 Presidential election was a time when the country’s economy saw some of its darkest times. The 2008 economic crisis shook the confidence of the American people which President Obama addresses in speech. President Obama talks about the United States as being in the “midst of crisis” with a weak economy and crumbling institutional infrastructure. Even despite “the challenges we face are real” and “they will not be met easily or in a short span of time” America is a strong country with strong citizens but “They [challenges or problems in the country] will be met” (Obama). At the conclusion of the sentence, the audience erupted in applause. The audience shared the emotional experience of the last few years and with a new President and administration in power, a new chapter is created that allows the people to write it themselves.

A theme in President Obama’s speech is a change from separation of people to unity. Obama explains the perspective of many different kinds of Americans such as those that are White, Hispanic, Black, and Asian. Race is a very emotional subject that has seen hardships since the foundation of the country. For example, President Obama talks about how his father and his struggle as a non-White person experienced segregation, not so long ago. Obama acknowledges the growth of the country “whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath” (Obama). The personal story from President Obama shows the growth of minority groups and the emotional journey that his family, like millions of families, endure in the United States.

President Obama’s Inaugural speech presents positive and negative feelings in his speech that contribute to the emotional appeals of the viewer. Obama directly references the Muslim world in his speech that experience great hatred from Americans after 9/11 terrorist attack. Yet President Obama wants the country to “seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect” which has not been the case, especially for the Bush administration (Obama). In a Pew Research Center poll in 2009, Muslims were the most discriminated against minority group in the United States (Pew Research). President Obama seeks to address this problem with a change in emotional sentiment about the group that lacked in past administrations.

President Obama’s speech might not resonate with the population who have strong feelings against minority groups. Specifically, Obama’s comment about Muslims might not resonate well with right wing conservationists who want a more repressive force on the religious group in association with the 9/11 attacks. Yet, this is a problem with any speech where a certain portion of the population does not agree with the orator’s opinion. Obama addresses this by pointing out the need for accountability for “those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy” (Obama). While President Obama’s speech might not be impactful for everyone, the use of emotions is effective in persuading an audience.

Delivery is a vital aspect for the success of any speech. As an important rhetorical concept, delivery is included in Roman philosopher Cicero’s idea of rhetorical canons. As one of the five aspects presented in the book De Inventione, delivery plays an important role in how a message is perceived by the public. Delivery is described by Cicero as the “regulating of the voice and body in a manner suitable to the dignity of the subjects spoken of and of the language employed” (Cicero). As one considers speeches, delivery is important because it allows the leader to connect with the audience through emotions.

President Obama’s use of hand gestures is one of the most visually apparent aspects during his Inaugural speech. Hand gestures offer a supplement for the words that are being spoken. President Obama’s hand gestures correspond with what he is saying. For instance, at the beginning of the speech, President Obama brings his hands together in a cupping shape. This gesture gives the impression of the President as a trustworthy individual. It is also associated with deliberation which is an important quality that people seek out in effective Presidents. Another hand gesture that is frequently used by President Obama is to point with an index finger. Although this might seem miniscule, he employs this by drawing attention to specific words or phrases. Furthermore, he uses this to transition from the perspectives of the narrator which allows the audience to grapple with the situation of the country.

Many people argue President Obama is an “overrated” orator because he relies on teleprompters. Teleporters are commonly used in public speeches and are commonly used for presidential speeches due to their importance on the delivery of specific points. The use of teleporters is effective, but they make the presenter appear scripted and merely “a voice” rather than speaking from the heart (Lee). While teleprompters enable the speaker assistance, virtually all Presidents have used them during the delivery of speeches especially important ones like the Inaugural Address.

Voice inflection is also an important part of delivery. For instance, President Obama, like many other speakers, changes their tone when they want to emphasize an essential point in his speech. When starting a new section of his speech, President Obama pauses and raises his tone by saying, “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord” (Obama). He keeps this tone by starting his next sentence “On this day” to stress the importance of a changing America. Using voice inflection refocuses the audience which reinforces the points made during a speech.

Presidential speeches are very important for citizens of the United States to hear what the President has to say. The Inaugural Address of 2009 was a monumental moment for the country with President Obama, the first non-White President, taking the oath of office. Delivery and the use of pathos standout in President Obama’s speech that offers the opportunity to analyze these aspects that are very important in public speaking. Employing pathos and effective delivery are critical elements in making a message resonate with the audience, observed in the 2009 Inaugural Address.

Works Cited

Clark, Roy Peter. “Why It Worked: A Rhetorical Analysis of Obama’s Speech on Race,” Poynter, October 20, 2017,

Cicero. (n.d.). Book 1. “Cicero’s de Inventione”, Book I, translated by C. D. Yonge, at Peitho’s web. 4

Jagyasi, Prem. (2018). The Study of Speeches: The Common Factor in the Greatest Speeches of All Times. In Instablogs. Athena Information Solutions Pvt. Ltd.

Luft, Oliver. “Barack Obama’s Inauguration Watched by 40m Americans,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, January 22, 2009),

Mshvenieradze, Tamar. “Logos Ethos and Pathos in Political Discourse.” Theory and practice in language studies 3, no. 11 (2013): 1939–.

Obama, Barack Hussein, “President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address,” National Archives and Records Administration (National Archives and Records Administration, January 21, 2009),


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