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Obama’s State of the Union – A Linguistic Window Into His Strategy & Mindset


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On January 28th President Obama gave his 5th State of the Union Address (SOTU) before the country. Since then much has been debated as to the speech’s merits and shortfalls. However behind the political quibbling, the superficial elements of his speech hide a deeper understanding. While a thematic study provides a good topical exploration, a structural analysis delves deeper. It demonstrates how the president used his words, overlooking what words he chose. Looking past the “economic inequalities” and “future unemployment rates,” we instead focus on the “I,” “You,” “He,” “She,” and “It”. These social function words that are the scaffolding of expression, control the flow of communication and can illuminate a lot. As with fingerprints, our structural vocabulary points to a writer’s inner world and can possibly illuminate his emotional state.

Using a linguistic analysis tool called LIWC, I have attempted to pull back the veil of the president’s diction and take a glance in-between the words. After analyzing his SOTU against his previous 4 SOTU’s, key patterns emerged from the data. These numerical nuggets each told a story of the president’s speech, his strategy, his commitment and his frustration.

A Simpler Storytelling Style

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One story that emerged was of a simpler, more digestible storytelling style.  Although the word count remained high, the president’s words per sentence dropped to an all time low of 15.72wps (compared to 97.13wps from his 2010 SOTU). In addition, his usage of large words greater than six letters fell from last year’s SOTU as well. This demonstrates Obama’s renewed vigor in simplifying his message and delivery into bite size chunks of information.

There is also a marked increase in the usage of “He” and “She” pronouns, once again highlighting the communication style chosen by the president. However, usage of “We” and “They,” dropped against his average showing that Obama’s style favored cases of individual Americans. This can be seen in his speech as he took time to draw upon examples and belabor individual cases.

Bottom Line – Obama’s SOTU embraced a harsher realistic style of communication that focused on individual cases, using a more blunt communication structure that got to the point quickly. His usage of emotional bites was meant to hit you in the gut and evoke a visceral attachment. To that end, his usage of the following thematic categories of words went up across the board: Social, Family, Affectation/Emotion and Anxiety. His usage of “We” fell slightly against the SOTU average demonstrating the president’s tactic of highlighting differences and accentuating individual cases. Also suffering was his vision of the future, as his use of the future tense dropped a remarkable 28% against his SOTU average. A picture of the future was not to be found, but rather a focus on uncovering the reality of current-day America. Use of the present tense increased against the SOTU average, allowing the president to cite current emotional examples.

 

Self-Conviction Wrought With Frustration

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In the end, the numbers point to President Obama’s renewed self-confidence. However this is overshadowed by his possible frustration in being able to diagnose but not fully solve problems, as the linguistic analysis uncovered. The president’s usage of first person pronouns (I, Me, My) increased from last year’s SOTU, back up to the average. In using the first person, we can gather that the President is perhaps slightly more confident in calling out his own accomplishments and drawing attention to his own work and to his person. When we take this into consideration with his rate of negation jumping back up to the average, we can conceivably forecast that he is calling things out, less afraid to challenge or defend his position. This is again tied with an increase of certainty diction (always, never), back up above the SOTU average and decrease of discrepancy diction (would, should), potentially demonstrating his slowly returning conviction.

However one problem that arises from the analysis is that his causal diction (because, hence, effect) returns to average but his ability to provide insight, solutions and vision decreases (think, know, consider). This suggests frustration in being able to understand and give examples of the problem but not being able to provide future visions for overcoming the problem. This conundrum is most likely a source of stress and can be seen again as he mentions financial key words 15% less against the SOTU average. This is also the first SOTU in which Obama did not ask a question to his audience, possibly pointing to the speech’s inability to provide or spark insights for problems.

In summary, Obama has regained some confidence but is still struggling to provide answers to problems that he clearly has identified through individual stories of everyday americans.

Please see the following charts and tables that provide the background to this research.