These Are the Words Obama Loves, and the Ones He Avoids

A linguist compares how his addresses stack up to other post-war presidents

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U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill on Jan. 28, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

In the days leading up to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday, members of Congress and politicos flooded the airwaves with predictions about what the president would say and opinions about what he should say. The great mystery is no more, and as Republicans labeled Obama’s 6,000-plus words as tired rhetoric and Democrats lauded them, one intrepid linguist used the speech to reveal something more: the words that Obama favors—and avoids—compared to other presidents.

Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, fed transcripts of all the State of the Union speeches from Harry Truman onward through algorithms that spit out scores for words based on how much Obama has used them in his big annual addresses. The academic minutiae at the top of his post on Language Log might be intimidating to anyone without a PhD, but you can find lists showing how Obama diverges from his predecessors further down.

Among the words Obama has used more than other presidents: innovation, Republicans, jobs, why, I’m, kids, college, because, companies, can’t, don’t and Democrats.

Among the words Obama has used less than other postwar presidents: must, peace, program, federal, freedom, nations, national, war and policy.

Grand conclusions must be drawn with caution, given what a small sample of speeches the State of the Union addresses make up. But the lists do contain some hints of how Obama has approached his job and his speech-making. TIME asked some former speechwriters to take a look at the words and see what jumped out at them.

Uses more: Democrats and Republicans

“It’s interesting that the two political party names are so prominent on his list, particularly for a president who had pledge to be post-partisan,” says former Bill Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol. “It probably reflects our preoccupation in this moment, and what has to be his, with party divisions.”

“I just don’t remember the presidents I worked for using the partisan references,” says Ken Khachigian, a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who sees Obama as uttering those labels “with a partisan edge.” In his speeches, Obama often uses the two words together, arguing that party alliances shouldn’t matter or pointing out instances where the two side have managed to work together. “Last month, thanks to the work of Democrats and Republicans, Congress finally produced a budget,” he said on Tuesday.

Uses less: program, policy, federal, national

These are words that Shesol remembers cutting out of his vocabulary when he was writing speeches for Clinton. “He seems to be steering clear of the kinds of words that suggest an old school Democrat,” Shesol says. “Clinton tended to avoid those, too, because they played to this negative Republican caricature of the Democratic Party… that we thought there was a program to solve every problem.” Leaving them out may show deference to actions made at the state and local level, he says.

Uses less: peace, freedom, nations, world

“He’s focused more on his domestic program than his international program,” says Khachigian, which makes sense given that the economy has topped Americans’ list of concerns throughout Obama’s presidency (his domestic priorities can also be seen in top words like college and kids). Khachigian argues that the absence of these words shows that Obama has failed to form solid foreign policy. Shesol meanwhile sees words that have become too politicized. “Freedom is one of these words that unfortunately has been co-opted by one particular party, along with liberty,” he says. “Republicans, they have by dint of repetition sort of asserted ownership of the concept.”

Uses more: I’m, don’t, can’t, we’ve

Khachigian, like many other Republicans, was quick to identify the first-person pronoun among Obama’s defining words. He connected it to “the remarkable self-admiration that has always been there for the president,” though TIME recently interviewed linguists who argue that words like I, me and my have nothing to do with egotism. The contractions may be stronger evidence of Obama’s attempt to be familiar, what Shesol calls “the conversational style in political speech-making” that has taken hold since the days of John F. Kennedy. In Kennedy’s 1963 speech, there is nary a don’t or can’t to be found, but there are do nots and cannots.

That shift started before Obama, but sounding like a man of the people has been especially important for the current commander-in-chief. “Obama may work a little bit overtime to undercut the idea that he is a professor, a scholar, all the things that Republicans accused him of being,” Shesol says. “He does love the word folks.” Even if he only uttered it four times on Tuesday evening.

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.

27 comments
roknsteve
roknsteve

Words conservatives love: Racist  - Obummer - Libtards - Obamacare - Patriot - Voter IS - Guns - God's.....    

drudown
drudown

Say, you realize the CONGRESS- not the President- has EXCLUSIVE CONTROL OVER THE DEBT, CORRECT? IT'S CALLED PLENARY POWER.


What does the Tea Party know about being a Christian when they are hell bent on declaring "war" on the poor?

They "outsourced" America's blue collar jobs and REFUSE to extend Food Stamps to them? You expect actual Christians to believe "that's what Jesus would do?"

I find it quite sad that more privileged American voters seem to be more and more hostile to their fellow Americans- as noted above, most are on hard times after the Bush Administration"outsourced" their jobs abroad. And, of course, the Tea Party/Libertarians contend "government cannot have any role" in even creating new jobs at home.
If you vote republican, you are voting to WEAKEN the US.Again, what a LIE.

In summary, the real "problem" with the "new" GOP is not, as is commonly alleged, they are the "party with no ideas." Nonsense. The "problem" is that a select few,
but disproportionately powerful lobbyist regimes have worked tirelessly to inculcate a culture that may be aptly summarized as follows: (1) the GOP worships unfounded [e.g., "cutting taxes raises revenue"], logically flawed guiding "principles" that only WEAKEN the US [i.e., "no
new taxes, ever" only unduly limits State's ability to create new jobs directly, fund grants/research, provide subsidies and training for its own citizens to, inter alia, thereby drive economic consumption and, indeed, help avert Welfare State dependency entirely] (2) the GOP
erroneously insists "government is the problem" when, in reality, there is no logic to the notion "corrupt and/or inefficient government practices in the past 'justifies' their alleged 'disbelief that 'prudent and sophisticated government' is not part of the solution or THE SOLUTION to certain problems that the private sector has no interest in alleviating much less resolving"]; (3) once the predictable effects of purposeful Plutocratic policy manifest in unhealthy Economic imbalances, the GOP has no remorse about placing the interests of the "few" over the "many" [i.e., despite the FACT systemic harmony will benefit the "few"- more so, over time], if not conditioning the People to "resent" the "poor" despite the FACT we are ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.


Let's start with EQUAL INCOME TAX ENFORCEMENT FOR ALL.

manlyman
manlyman

He's definitely not fond of the word "obamacare".

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

Three words that sets Obama drooling and hyperventilating. I, Me, Myself. Three words these Obamabots that set their legs tingling. You da man.

haroldlewisblair
haroldlewisblair

The words Obama avoids are BIRTH CERTIFICATE & FRAUD & FORGERY- this man is pure evil- and every part of his life is a lie-starting with his hidden criminal past history that cost millions to hide

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@mantisdragon91 @roknsteve If you like your plan you can keep it period. If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor. period. If you like your premium you can keep your premium. period. How many words are that now Mantis ?

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@aztecian @haroldlewisblair Now now, Harold is guaranteed under the US Constitution to use caps. Just as leftists are guaranteed to be extra stupid under same. Ask John Kerry. And to be liars too. Only libbies.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@MrObvious @ReneDemonteverde @mantisdragon91 @roknsteve Actually you are, Mr Oblivious, actually you are. With apologies to Homer Simpson. For sure you voted for an unvetted man, with zero accomplishment, kept his records sealed all because he is black, acts and talks cool and sings like Al Green. So who is not naive ? Unfortunately the rest who saw through this Fraud are suffering with the rest of you libbies.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@mantisdragon91 @ReneDemonteverde @roknsteve Oh Mantis, Such a terrible experience for sure for you. You got raped in jail ? Usually victims consider rape so traumatic that they always think rape even when in discussion about the uselessness of this President. Rape was not in the scheduled topics for the day. Wait till they include it. Until then please stick to the one being discussed.

MrObvious
MrObvious

@ReneDemonteverde @MrObvious 

Dear Rene

In order to have something you also need to keep talking about it.

Unlike you I don't mention Bush that often and I certainly do not blame him for every ill, be it road rash, wet underwear or everything under the sky.

'You're it' is a dumb way to reply if you can't demonstrate 'it'. In fact you so did by once more name dropping Obama. See?

Probably not.

Thanks for your continued juvenile retort. 

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@MrObvious @ReneDemonteverde Are you so oblivious that you really have no idea ? I will leave you stewing in your own fat. You have smeared so many decent people with your liberalistic stupidity.