Obama’s Nonverbal Rhetoric (written for BECA 370, Writing For Electronic Media, May 2013)
President Obama approaches the podium, lifting his chin and grinning slightly. He waves to the crowd with his left hand. Thanking them with an almost shy smile, he turns to acknowledge the Vice President, the Chief Justice, and Congress, and begins his inauguration speech. He tilts his head up at a slight angle and speaks in his familiar resonant baritone, emphasizing with both hands pointed forward as if they are holding a 12-inch globe. During the phrase “affirm the promise of our democracy”, he lifts both hands, palms pointed toward his heart.
As the President works his way toward the theme of a diverse yet unified nation, his eyes narrow into a stern gaze. Reciting the opening lines of the Declaration Of Independence, he drops his head and lowers his voice slightly at “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Moving into his own words, Obama clenches his fists for emphasis on “never-ending journey”, opening his hands on “to bridge the meaning of those words to the realities of our time.” He crooks his right index finger, not quite pointing, when he argues that the freedom that is “a gift from God” must be “secured by his people here on Earth.”
From the principles of the Founding Fathers, the President segues into slavery and the Civil War, after which “we made ourselves anew.” As he proclaims this he raises his hands, palms facing his chest, and turns them upwards. Each time Obama uses the word “together”, he holds his right hand up and extends it to the crowd. On “to speed travel and commerce”, he makes a sweeping sideways gesture with his right hand, palm facing down. On “a great nation must care for the vulnerable”, he waves his left hand, clenched lightly as if he is holding a pen. He finishes the thought with the right hand, again with palm down, sweeping to the right and slightly downward. When President Obama says, “we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority”, he puts extra breath into the word “never”, emphasizing it with a stage whisper. He builds his argument with increasing force in his voice, acknowledging the traditions of American individualism, before softening his tone and raising his palms to his chest at the words, “when times change, so must we.”