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How Obama uses rhetoric to bring together nation key to inaugural, says Vanderbilt speech expert

One of the most important themes to listen for in Barack Obama’s inaugural address is a call for a united American body or citizenry, says Vanessa Beasley, an associate professor of communication studies at Vanderbilt University. Beasley is the author of You, The People: American National Identity in Presidential Rhetoric, which looks at previous inaugural addresses from 1885 to 2001.

“A key function of every inaugural speech is to rhetorically unite the people, especially after an especially divisive campaign,” according to Beasley. In addition, the speech celebrates the smooth transition of power from one president to the next and lays out the general political principles of the incoming administration. The message the president conveys to the international audience, especially foreign heads of state, will be critical also, she said.

Beasley noted that the inaugural address has become such an institution that presidents almost walk into it as opposed to the speech coming to them. “We can be certain that Obama’s speechwriters have a very clear sense of the kinds of notes they have to hit and the kinds of formats they need to follow,” she said.

The most important visual images at the inauguration will be those of the incoming and outgoing leaders and their families. “We want to see the new president assume the mantle of the presidency in ways that are very consistent with those of previous inaugurations,” she noted.

Vanessa Beasley can be reached for media interviews at

Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, 615-322-NEWS