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.