New White House speechwriters-in-chief always change the speech of the US president. They cleverly modify his highest profile messages through the words they allocate to him and how often he repeats them.
The State of the Union address reveals text patterns introduced by new speechwriting staff. It’s often a script to fight the bitter pressure of political realities: a faltering war, the loss of control of Congress by the president’s party, or a falling public approval rating.
The State of the Union is part requirement, part tradition. The president finds this directive in his job description from Article 2 of the US Consitution: “He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Actual presentation of an in-person speech before Congress has fallen in and out of favor from the time of George Washington. But it’s been in vogue for the past quarter century. It amounts to an executive summary by the CEO of the country. As such it’s as likely to be filled with visionary fantasy as hard facts, as likely a report of the nation’s condition as an Oval Office wish list, as likely to make political posturings as to rally national concensus.
By examining beyond the literal statements in the State of the Union addresses of 2002 and 2007 we can see striking differences in the underlying messages of their word patterns. One thing that stands out clearly between the two years and the change of scriptwriters between them, and that is that more is better.
The State of the Union address had become jammed with more words and heavier sentences. The count in 2007 shows 50% more words than in 2002. Forty percent more sentences appear. And these are 5% heavier with words.
But the simplest and most powerful emphasis is achieved by repeating. By checking word counts we can look inside what the president intended to stress in each of these two speeches.
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In the 2002 address – after the invasion of Afghanistan, but before the invasion of Iraq – his longest repeated phrases were:
this is a regime that has (about iraq) and
I hope you will join me, each uttered twice.
In the 2007 address, he doubled up on
with health insurance will pay no income (talking about taxes)
a future of hope and opportunity requires.
Other phrases he favored in 2002 included:
September the 11th, 5 times
weapons of mass destruction, 4 times
and of course, the American people, 4 times.
The number of phrases repeated in 2007 declined. Still he managed to include:
we need to, 8 mentions
the Middle East, 5 mentions
private health insurance, 4 mentions
war on terror, 4 mentions
and of course, the American people, 4 mentions.
For 2007 his team laid on distinctive word pairs heavily. In 2002 word pairs were mostly general, such as: the best, 6 times, and my budget, 5 times.
By 2007 the leading pairs had become more concrete as health insurance got 11 references, in Iraq got 10, and Al Qaeda, received 10 references.
Among the president’s favorite terms, the most distinctive word shifted from security at 19 mentions in 2002, to health with 18 mentions in 2007.
If words were all that mattered, then great progress had been made because terror and terrorist(s) declined from 38 references to 21.
But, righteousness appears to have suffered as good dropped from 13 to 7 times.
On the other hand, the world might be a safer place considering that weapon(s) mentions slipped from 12 to 3.
Whether because of neglect or progress, Afghanistan faded in attention from 10 to 4 mentions.
However, in truly American fashion, new held in there with 13 times for 2002 and 16 times for 2007.
Sizeable gains were also seen. For instance government(s) went from 5 to 16 citations.
And things that hadn’t even been mentioned in the 2002 speech burst onto the scene in a big way. Insurance came from nowhere to 14 mentions. Extremists and extremism rose from out of the blue to 8.
Finally, democracy and democratic did take root, growing from 0 to 8 mentions. And this in just 5 years. That certainly sounds like progress.