What Presidents Talk About

On January 12, 2016, President Obama will deliver his 8th* and final State of the Union (SOTU) speech. It will surely celebrate his successes and look ahead to what he hopes to accomplish before his term ends. State of the Union speeches, with their soaring rhetoric and dead-on-arrival legislative suggestions, are a reflection of the President’s priorities and the nation’s concerns, where the most powerful person in the world (and the best speechwriters) make their case to the American people. But each president approaches the address from a different perspective. I analyzed each State of the Union address in the last 70 years to see what’s changed — and what hasn’t.

Most of a president’s words can be categorized as supporting either domestic policy or foreign policy. Using the texts of all the SOTUs since 1946, I trained** a classifier to recognize each sentence of a speech as containing ‘domestic policy,’ ‘foreign policy,’ or ‘other.’ The following graph shows the the percentage of each speech dedicated to each type of policy. Before Reagan, presidents tended to devote equal time to foreign and domestic policy. Since then, however, every president with the notable exception of George W. Bush has devoted more time to domestic policy. The second Bush of course had to contend with multiple wars and and a new global terrorism threat. It’s interesting to note however, that Bush dedicated more time to foreign policy than even the presidents during the height of the Cold War. On the other hand, within a presidency, the foreign/domestic split is not driven by immediate global events. For example, President Bush devoted the first half of his 2002 State of the Union to discussing 9/11, Afghanistan, and security. However, he then pivoted to discussing the tax relief, welfare reform, and the USA Freedom Corp. The speech was more foreign policy heavy than almost any other, but not drastically more than President Bush’s average. Similarly, President Obama gave his first address in the middle of the financial crisis and a week after signing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (i.e. the bailout). Nevertheless, his speech was not drastically more domestic policy focused than the rest of his addresses.

Looking forward to President Obama’s final State of the Union, we can expect the president to discuss the attacks in San Bernadino and in Paris, and the war on ISIS. However, don’t expect him to devote significantly more time on foreign policy as a result — those portions of the speech will likely offset other foreign policy discussions, not domestic policy.

foreign policy vs domestic policy

We can break down these components further. The following graphs show the frequencies of certain words*** uttered during the State of the Union. Note that all the plots are interactive, so you can zoom into any portion or add/remove terms from the legend on the right.

Some of the trends can be seen as a sign of their times. Where post-WWII presidents loved to talk about Europe, and Reagan and Carter about the Soviets, recent presidents are all about the Middle East and, increasingly, China. While President Bush spent an extended amount of time discussing Iraq during his last State of the Union (maybe to convince us that things were finally looking up), President Obama barely has mentioned the country. Such trends are not limited to foreign poicy. For example, as clean energy and gas prices again become pre-dominant in American culture, discussion of ‘energy’ is reaching a level not seen since the 1970s oil crisis. Similarly, every president since Clinton has devoted significant time to discussing health care.

Other trends are partisan. Presidents Obama and Clinton loved to talk about jobs, though neither of the President Bush’s did. The split cannot solely be explained as a Democrat/Republican split, however, as both Carter and Reagan occasionally talked about jobs. Presidents Obama and Clinton both also loved to talk about college, as did most Democrats. Republicans rarely utter the word. On the other hand, Republicans love to discuss freedom and the free world.

Canada, Cuba, USSR, Israel, Afghanistan, Mexico, Soviet, Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, China, Europe, Taliban
tax, school, energy, terror, health, college, veteran, education, job, economy, free

We can learn a lot more from a president’s speeches than just their policy priorities. Those who like to claim that President Obama is an egomaniac**** will be delighted to see that President Obama, like President Clinton before him, loved to use the word ‘I’, while both Presidents George W. Bush and President Reagan eschewed the word (Bush especially used it a comically consistent number of times in each of his speeches, as if on purpose). All the presidents prefer to share the credit, using ‘we’ at twice the rate as ‘I’. Both Obama and Clinton also were the only ones to refer to ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans.’ Whether you consider them more partisan as a result (or excuse it as them calling on everyone to work together) is surely based on what you want to believe.

my, Democrat, us, Republican, we, I, you, their, they, our

In addition, some presidents simply like to talk more than others. The following graph shows the length of each State of the Union in both words and time. Note that the time of speeches before 1966 is not in the data, though most of them were delivered to Congress verbally. If you’re wondering about Truman’s 1946 address, which at over 25k words can only be classified as a thesis, don’t worry — he didn’t actually give the speech out loud. He simply had the written text delivered to Congress. He spent that space talking about everything from the minimum wage to post-war foreign policy to interest payments on the debt. When it comes to spoken addresses, no one liked to talk more (and for a longer period of time) than the last President Clinton.

Looking forward to President Obama’s address: expect to be in front of the TV a while. A president’s last State of the Union tends to be among his longest addresses as he seeks to solidify a legacy and influence his successor’s election.

State of the Union Length

Finally, below are the word clouds***** of each president’s speeches. Note that most presidents liked to remind everyone that they were president, and that we are indeed part of the world. Only President Clinton thought of the children, while President Obama seems to be obsessed with the economy.

*Technically his 7th, as a president’s speech in front of a Joint Session a month into their presidency is not categorized as a State of the Union. For our purposes, it will be.

**First, Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) was used to identify 30 topics from the texts. Then, a hierarchical linear support vector machine was trained to recognize foreign policy (with sub-components ‘war/terrorism’ and ‘everything else’) and domestic policy (with sub-components ‘economy,’ ‘health care,’ ‘education,’ ‘criminal justice/drugs,’ and ‘everything else’) using the transformation of each sentence into the LDA space.

***Some fuzzy matching was performed, e.g. both ‘jobs’ and ‘job’ are included under ‘job.’

****I am certainly NOT one of those people

*****Words like ‘America’ and other common words were removed

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