Metaphors in Presidential Speeches
A metaphor is a device that allows people to compare one thing to another – whether it is said what that other thing is or not. Presidential speeches are full of metaphors because they can act as a bolster to morale, encourage participation, and serve a symbol for years to come. Here are just six of the best metaphors from presidential speeches.
List of Metaphor Examples
• John F. Kennedy at Remarks at the Dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center, San Antonio, TX, November 21, 1963
“America has tossed its cap over the wall of space!”
At the start of the Space Race, JFK announced that the United States was going to be at the front of the movement. He compared this speech to “tossing his cap” or declaring monopoly over the first successful trip to the moon. America tossing its cap is a metaphor for declaring that it will take charge of the movement. This speech allowed him to gain support for spending tax dollars on the space program.
• Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, Washington DC, March 4, 1933
“I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.”
FDR took office right after the Great Depression when the country’s morale was at an all-time low and people were suffering in the years prior to World War II. He used a metaphor comparing the hard working, extremely tough and resilient citizens to an army. He did this so that people would be willing to get back out into the workforce and push through until the economy took an upturn.
• Barack Obama, Address to the Nation on Syria, Washington DC, September 10, 2013.
“Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”
When speaking about the conflict with Syria, President Obama was very serious with his tone and he spoke very bluntly with many literal phrases. However, in this metaphor, he issued a direct warning to the country about what the United States military would not do: give them a slap on the wrist and walk away.
• Ronald Raegan, Inaugural Address, Washington DC, January 21, 1985
“But there are many mountains yet to climb. We will not rest until every American enjoys the fullness of freedom, dignity, and opportunity as our birthright.”
Ronald Raegan knew about the problems facing the country in the mid-1980s, including the AIDs virus, tax problems, inequality, and the rise of Communism. He knew these were the mountains that the United States had to focus on for the next four years, or the main problems they were going to encounter.
• George W. Bush, The President’s Radio Address, Washington DC, December, 22, 2011
“The year now ending saw a few acts of terrible evil. It also saw many more acts of courage and kindness and love. And these reflect the great hope of Christmas: A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.”
Most presidents love to quote the Bible in their speeches, but W. took it a step further with a metaphor for the conflict in the Middle East. Bush was notorious for portraying the United States with metaphors of light and the Middle Easy as the darkness. The United States was in the Middle East, and he believed they were doing positive work.
• Bill Clinton, First Inaugural Address, Washington DC, January 20, 1993
“And you have changed the face of Congress, the Presidency, and the political process itself. Yes, you, my fellow Americans, have forced the spring. Now we must do the work the season demands.”
In poetry, mentioning spring is almost always a metaphor for new beginnings and a resurgence. Bill Clinton was inaugurated after a highly volatile term by George H. W. Bush, and he spoke frequently during the election about a rebirth for the country, and with his first inaugural address, he declared that start of that rebirth. It was a metaphor for moving forward and putting the economy in the right direction and reducing national debt.
Presidents (or their speechwriters, as the case may be) are well known for weaving flowery words filled with figurative language. These are just a few of the more recent examples, but many famous presidential speeches, especially inaugural speeches, have metaphors.