Study Guide

Barack Obama's 2009 Inaugural Address Quotes

By Barack Obama, Jon Favreau (speechwriter)

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  • Perseverance

    At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents. (3.4)

    Carry on, wayward nation. Notice how Obama looks to the past (to forebears and the Founders) for the answer to America's current crisis. Referencing the past puts the crisis of 2008-2009 in perspective, which makes it seem more manageable to persevere in the present. If we got through that, we can get through this.

    Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those that prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. (8.3)

    Sounds like something from a Vince Lombardi speech. Obama doesn't say that the path forward will be easy. It's really the opposite: he acknowledges that progress is challenging. And check out how he phrases this first line: he says "our journey," which gives us the feeling that change is a group effort and the average person listening isn't facing their difficulties alone. Strength in numbers, baby.

    Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. (11.6)

    During the campaign, one of Obama's stated objectives was to get Americans to take public service more seriously, to get them involved, to take the fate of the nation into their own hands, to…whoops, we slipped into some pretty sweet anaphora there. Obama believed that it would require average people—not just politicians in Washington—to fix the nation.

    All this we can do. All this we will do. (12.8-9)

    One of Obama's campaign catchphrases was "yes we can," which is pretty similar to this quote. What's that? Can we pass you the Cheetos? Yes, we can—and we will. It doesn't get more inspirational (or cliché) than that.

    With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. (32.2)

    Endurance, bravery in icy currents…sounds like a survival show. Do you remember the time Obama hung out with Bear Grylls? The metaphor creates a compelling narrative about the crisis, one that Americans could get excited about.

  • Community

    Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions, greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction. (10.1-2)

    President Obama's blueprint for unity? Downplay our differences and seek a common goal. You might be crazy for waffles while your sister is straight up Team Pancakes, but if you and your siblings work together, you can make a stronger case in convincing your parents to let you have breakfast for dinner. Unity, people.

    The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. (15.4)

    During the financial crisis, there was a pretty huge gap between economic classes, with a pretty tiny proportion of the population controlling the majority of the country's wealth. (A few years later when the Occupy Wall Street movement came about, this was sometimes referred to as "the 1 percent.") Struggling working-class Americans developed a bit of a distaste for the finance industry (you know: banks, investment firms, etc.), who they saw as a symbol of excessive and unmerited wealth. Here, Obama is arguing for closing the gap between the haves and have nots. Or the have way too muches and the have nots, as it were.

    For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. (21.1-2)

    Never before had a modern president placed such an emphasis on our diversity as a nation. Here, President Obama gives a nod to our varied cultural backgrounds and religions as something that makes us great. Another first? Obama was the first president to acknowledge in an inaugural address that some people don't believe in God.

    To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. (24.1)

    President Obama places America in a global context here. The country is part of a community of nations around the world, some of which are experiencing problems the United States hasn't had to face, at least not on the same scale. Obama wants to reach out to developing countries and help them thrive.

    For as much as government can do, and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. (26.3-4)

    Community is just something that Americans are intrinsically all about. As examples of this selfless, team-player attitude, Obama references workers banding together and taking pay cuts to save their coworkers' jobs, and people literally opening their homes to strangers with nowhere to go after Hurricane Katrina. We guess that last one could be a reference to Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks." But we're pretty sure it's Katrina.

  • Faith

    At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents. (3.4)

    Obama's idea of faith goes beyond religion. In this speech, faith includes trusting in America's oldest political institutions. You could say the speech strikes a balance between secular "faith" and religious faith.

    The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. (14.1)

    At a time when Americans were doubting the government (Congress and the outgoing president had abysmally low approval ratings), Obama challenges Americans to believe in the ability of the government to do good, regardless of its size. Since many Americans felt like the system was broken, this was an important message to drive home. Obama believes in the system's potential to help the American people.

    For as much as government can do, and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. (26.3)

    Might this be a sort of shout-out to the conservative ideals of self-reliance and individual determination? Either way, Obama suggests that the government definitely needs to work, but it definitely can't work without Americans' faith and grit. Kind of like Oreos and a glass of milk: you can't have one without the other.

    This is the source of our confidence—the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall. (29.3)

    Oh, hey, it's God again. Obama goes very old school here with rhetoric that evokes the idea that America is inherently special, perhaps courtesy of the big guy upstairs. But he only takes this old-school trope so far, and instead of going full 1840s Manifest Destiny, Obama takes a decidedly modern tack, again referencing America's religious diversity as a major strength. And did we mention there's a big party on the National Mall right now? People of all genders, ages, races, and faiths are welcome.

    Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations. (32.3)

    This is Obama's whole speech in one sentence. He encourages average people, maybe people who have lost their jobs or homes, to have faith that God wants America to succeed. Even when it looks like times are tough, he says, the American people need to look forward, so that future generations can experience the awesome stuff about America.

  • Visions of America

    We'll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. (12.5-6)

    The Bush administration didn't do much to align itself with the scientific community, and was even accused of pressuring government scientists to downplay the issue of climate change (source). Rather than suppressing science and technology, Obama says he will embrace it. In 2008, he campaigned on expanding alternative energy, which he saw as a way to benefit the economy and save the environment. They call that a win-win.

    The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity, on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart. (15.5)

    During the economic crisis of 2008, the American public was angered by the sizeable income gap between rich and poor. Obama envisions a more level playing field, where the economy would give opportunities to those who work hard, not just let the rich get richer. This wasn't a popular idea with Republicans or Richie Rich.

    Guided by these principles once more we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. (19.3)

    The Bush administration saw the war on terror as solely America's job, but Obama promised to work in cooperation with other countries to face global threats. His reference to an exit strategy for the Iraq War is another clear signal of a shift away from Bush-era policies.

    We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve. (21.3)

    Is diversity about everyone coming together around similarities or celebrating everyone's differences? Obama suggests that it's a little of both. Dissolving "the lines of tribe" suggests that he envisions a post-racial America, but at the same time, he acknowledges that America is a melting pot of cultures. We can do both.

    What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world. (28.2)

    Duty and responsibility—sounds familiar. It all recalls JFK's "ask what you can do for your country" speech. This is the one-two punch of optimism and motivational challenge you would expect from an inaugural address. Classic move.

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