2015 vs. 2016: What does language analysis tell us about Obama’s final State of the Union?

Tuesday night marked President Obama’s highly anticipated final State of the Union address. Just like we did with his SOTU in January of 2015, we conducted language analysis on his speech to see what we could learn about his message, and how it may have evolved since last year’s.


(See the full top 25 lists below)

We ran Obama’s State of the Union address (you can read the full text of his address here) through an analytics tool that uses the same technology that we use to generate our language models. This tool specifically looks at which words and phrases the President over-indexed for, or used more often than average use in US English. You can see the results in two top 25 lists below: one for the most overused single words, and one for the most overused two-word phrases.

The #1 most over-used word used by Obama this year was “ISIL”, with “al Qaeda” topping the list of most over-used two-word phrases. Overall, words relating to terrorism are seen in the lists six times. Neither ISIL nor al Qaeda — nor any word relating to terrorism whatsoever — appears in the list of over-used words for the 2015 SOTU, a clear indicator of the increased profile of these groups and terrorist threats over the past 12 months.

Similar to last year’s speech, Obama seemed to call for solidarity as a nation with words like “we”, “Americans”, and “our” at key spots in the top ten list — both in 2015 and 2016 (note that they’re also in the same exact rank for both years).

With the Presidential election looming and candidates on both sides of the political spectrum making headlines every day, Obama also emphasized political reconciliation, over-indexing on words like “bipartisan”, “democracy” and “leadership”. In 2015, the words “better politics” hit the #2 spot in the list, showing that his concern over the growing divide between political parties is an ongoing theme. In last night’s speech, Obama cited this divide as one of his “few regrets” from his 8 years in the Oval Office.

The topic of climate change makes an appearance in 2016, with the phrases “200 nations” and “200” in the top 25 lists, referencing the 200 countries who came together to adopt the climate agreement last month in Paris. This topic is nowhere to be found in 2015’s speech, perhaps an indicator of a public shift in opinion on this contentious ongoing debate.

Words like “economic”, “hardworking” and “workers” also popped up in the top 25 for 2016. Of particular interest to us was the emphasis that Obama put on the role of technology and the ever-increasing pace of innovation in America’s economy. It’s a fascinating — and incredibly important — conversation and we’re looking forward to seeing this theme evolve in the future.

This contrasts somewhat with 2015, when economics of middle-class Americans dominated Obama’s speech, with related words like “middle-class”, “child care”, “sick leave”, “paid sick” and his story of “Rebekah” (the face of a hard-working American family) taking many spots in the top 25 of both lists. There are significantly fewer of these themes found in the 2016 speech — a reflection of the increasing (yet still tentative) confidence in the US economy over the past year.

Below is a full run-down of the top 25 most over-indexed words from the 2016 SOTU, as compared to 2015. To make it easier to see how emphasis on certain words or themes have changed year over year, matching words have been highlighted in the same color for both 2015 and 2016.

We saw many of the same themes when we pulled the top 25 most over-used two-word phrases, in addition to some new themes which show more clearly the differences between 2015 and 2016’s speeches.

What did you think of the State of the Union — this year and last year? Let us know on Twitter!

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