SOTU 2019: A look at the words used by Trump and Abrams

By Scott Nolan Smith and Olivia White

Photo: 2019 State of the Union, via the White House

A visualization of President Trump’s SOTU and the response by Stacey Abrams.

Last night, President Trump delivered his second State of The Union address, and his third address to the joint Houses of Congress. Slightly delayed due to the government shutdown, many wondered what might be included in the remarks, and what the looming debates over immigration, the budget and foreign and security policy activities abroad could mean for the final text.

Why It Matters

The State of the Union, an annual address by the U.S. President to a joint session of Congress, is a political ritual of American politics. It’s an opportunity to engage in political pomp and for a sitting president to outline their vision and agenda for the year — ranging from domestic to foreign policies, and just about anything in between.

President Trump’s State of the Union

President Trump’s remarks this year covered the full spectrum of issues, touching on foreign policy, illegal immigration, and his promised border wall. Elements of his speech sought common ground with Democrats on domestic issues, such as family leave, women and politics, infrastructure programs, healthcare and drug prices, and eliminating AIDS / HIV within 10 years.

Looking specifically at his word choice, we see where the heavier focus was placed and how these themes overlap. “Illegal immigration”, “border”, “wall”, “drugs”, “law”, “secure”, and “protect” are frequently used, and are interconnected in America’s immigration reform debate and the narrative the White House and Republican Party have woven to make their case for a wall on America’s southern border with Mexico and for stricter U.S. immigration policies.

A focus on the economy is evident in his use of the terms “jobs”, “trade”, “unfair”’ and “work”, and in Trump’s specific shoutout to American women — represented in record numbers in the U.S. Congress and the American workforce — and his call for a nationwide policy for paid family leave.

Some of the memorable takeaways from his speech include his call to end AIDS, his vow to prevent socialism from spreading in America, and his pause to honor survivors of violent antisemitism and WWII heroes. The frequency and specifics of word choice, however, make it clear that immigration and the economy were the paramount focuses of the President’s speech last night. We can expect to see the focus on these issues magnified as the budget deal is negotiated and we move closer to the 2020 presidential election.

Stacey Abrams’ response to the State of the Union

Stacey Abrams, recent Democratic nominee for Governor of Georgia and former Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, presented the response to the State of the Union, and while some of Abrams’ and Trump’s words intersect and remain similar, many differed — and so did their frequency of use.

Abrams did not merely respond to the remarks delivered by the president, she presented a Democratic vision, based more in a tone of optimism than political combativeness. She opted to refocus on topics and areas she felt should be made front and center. Abrams’ focuses included families, education, leadership, values, voting rights, justice, equality and fairness, women, and work / workers.

Abrams did not shy away from the issues of immigration and the border, but they were not the pillars of her words, they were pieces of a larger narrative.

However, based on some opinions and analysis, the major takeaways from Abrams’ speech may not have been her words, but the tone and delivery of the speech itself. She adopted a rhythm that implied forward momentum and passionate belief in a better future and she spoke from personal experience. She also focused more on the collective — setting up a further divide in the approach to messaging between the White House / Republicans and the Democrats.

Clyde Insights

When looking at both word cloud comparisons side by side, there is not an immense contrast in word choice, but there are some key differences in the amount of times certain words were mentioned. Abrams’ diction indicates a greater focus on investing in society and doing more social good. She follows a tradition of Democratic optimism, of emphasis on the collective. Michelle Obama’s famous proclamation “when they go low, we go high” comes to mind. Additionally, Abrams’ tight focus on justice and voting was personal and echoes an argument she’s been making since she lost the Georgia governor’s race in November due, in part, to alleged voter fraud.

It’s also interesting to note that Abrams said “Republican” more times than President Trump said “Democrat,” though many expected him to explicitly attack and place blame on the opposing party throughout his speech. This goes to show that the partisan blame game isn’t as one-sided as the media might portray.

President Trump’s word choice demonstrates his reliance on negative, combative terminology to prove a point. His focus on the border and illegal immigrants are in line with his typical fear mongering tactics. In his world, it is us or them. It’s also amusing to point out that the words “million”, “decades” and “years” pop up quite a bit in his speech — suggesting his tendency to exaggerate with grandiose generalizations (i.e. “strongest we’ve been in years,” or “most jobs created in decades” or statements along those lines) as opposed to specific facts.

For all of Trump’s talk about a border wall, illegal immigrants, drugs and gang activity, these terms are still not the most heavily emphasized in his State of the Union address. The words “fault” and “blame” aren’t highlighted either. He was not the volatile Trump we’ve come to expect, or maybe even relish, in short sound bites and inflammatory headlines. From the key, highlighted words in his speech, it’s evident that he was speaking directly to his base. While the address itself was no Infamy Speech, it did what it was intended to do. It communicated his commitment to his base and likely convinced people who may have been questioning his effectiveness as a leader since voting for him in 2016 that he is still committed to promises made years ago, that he has a plan for advancing them, and that he can act as a head of state should.

One word that is notably missing from both speeches is “climate” (or, in a similar vein, “environment”). Abrams mentioned once, briefly, that we could be doing much more to take action on climate change, and Trump neglected to touch on the subject entirely. Another missing term? “Shutdown,” despite the fact that the longest government shutdown in American history just ended and another may lurk just around the corner. Abrams mentioned it just once.

History will probably deem both speeches unremarkable, but effective in their own rights. Both sides of the partisan media spectrum will praise the speaker who shares their values while rigorously fact-checking and denouncing the other. It is unlikely that President Trump changed the minds or softened the judgement of fervent dissenters, and it’s equally unlikely that Abrams was able to do the same. The speeches merely corroborated the stark differences in party rhetoric, and it’s clear that neither will concede to the other’s any time soon.