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A Content Analysis of President Obama's 2010 State of the Union Address

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Emphasis on domestic policy and insertion of non-policy rhetoric stands in sharp contrast to George W. Bush's final State of the Union Address in 2008

President Barack Obama's first State of the Union Address demonstrated a notable shift for the nation's leader, both when compared to the content of the last such Address by his predecessor in 2008 as well as Obama's first Address before a Joint Session of Congress in February 2009.

A Smart Politics content analysis of Obama's speech on Wednesday night and recent presidential Addresses reveals the changing problems facing the United States, the differing priorities of the two administrations, and the current political need for a different rhetorical style for Obama in his Address to the American people.

Obama's first State of the Union Address was substantial, to be sure - approximately 32 percent longer than George W. Bush's final such Address in 2008.

But whereas 56.6 percent of Bush's speech (measured by the number of sentences delivered) focused on the nation's foreign policy challenges, only 13.9 percent of Obama's speech touched on foreign policy issues.

With the United States still reeling from an economic recession - the brunt of which endured by the Obama administration - it is no wonder that 65.3 percent of the President's speech Wednesday night addressed domestic issues, compared to just 35.0 percent for Bush in '08.

The plurality of Obama's speech (74 sentences, 17.2 percent) was spent on economy and jobs, compared to just 4.0 percent for Bush. And rightfully so: back in January 2008 the unemployment rate was just 4.9 percent nationwide, compared to more than double that at 10.0 percent through December 2009.

Back in February 2009, when Obama gave his first Address to Congress outlining his plan to confront America's economic and fiscal crises, the President split the difference with 10.0 percent of his speech on economy and jobs, as unemployment hit 8.1 percent.

President Obama also spent significant time during Wednesday's address on domestic issues such as his new pet issue, freezing federal spending and reducing the national debt (41 sentences, 9.5 percent), and his old pet issue, expanding health care to millions of Americans (32 sentences, 7.4 percent).

But while Bush only spent 19 lines on these two issues in 2008 (5.8 percent), what is more noteworthy is that Obama spent a larger percentage of his February 2009 address on those issues (21.8 percent) than he did last night (16.9 percent).

It is no secret Obama has taken a political beating for his failure to get a health care plan passed through Congress during the first year of his administration (let alone one backed by the American people).

While Obama acknowledged his political struggles, there was a noticeable difference in the content of his speech - compared both to his February 2009 Address and Bush's 2008 Address.

In the post-speech analysis, several cable television political pundits characterized Obama's recent Address as a return of sorts to his stump speeches during his 2008 presidential campaign.

This can be seen by the fact that more than one-fifth of Obama's State of the Union Address was composed of non-policy, 'inspirational' lines - the type of soaring rhetoric that helped win Obama the presidency two years ago.

In total, 20.7 percent of Obama's speech (89 sentences) included non-policy remarks, the plurality of which dealt with the "spirit of America" (31 lines, 7.2 percent), the general 'challenges' the U.S. must face and overcome (23 lines, 5.3 percent), and the need for bipartisanship in Washington D.C. to see that these challenges are met (29 lines, 6.7 percent).

By contrast, only 8.3 percent of Bush's 2008 address was filled with non-policy messages, and only 3 lines touched on bipartisanship.

And in February 2009, soaring high with honeymoon approval ratings and large Democratic majorities in Congress seemingly in his back pocket, only 1.8 percent of Obama's Address was on bipartisanship (5 sentences), and just 13.6 percent on non-policy issues.

Thus, as Obama has witnessed the Republican Party gaining traction with the American people heading into the 2010 election (most recently evidenced by the GOP U.S. Senate special election victory in Massachusetts earlier this month), the President saw the need to speak at great length for the need for bipartisan efforts to get things done in Washington.

The feel-good 'spirit of America' rhetoric that was so prevalent in Obama's speech Wednesday night - perhaps a rhetorical cloak for the administration's failure to enact policies such as health care - were largely absent in his February 2009 address, in which just one line used this language, in his closing paragraph.

The majority of Bush's non-policy messages in January 2008 centered on the importance of individualism (13 lines, 4.0 percent) - a concept not raised in either Obama's February 2009 Address or his 2010 State of the Union speech.

General Policy Areas in Recent Presidential Addresses Before Congress, 2008-2010

Policy area
Bush 1/28/08
Obama 2/24/09
Obama 1/27/10
Domestic
35.0%
76.1%
65.3%
Foreign
56.6%
10.3%
13.9%
Other (non-policy)
8.3%
13.6%
20.7%
Source: Content analysis by Smart Politics.

As for foreign policy, in Bush's 2008 Address, 56.6 percent of his remarks addressed a variety of challenges abroad such as Iraq (16.5 percent), national security (6.4 percent), trade (5.5 percent), terrorism (4.9 percent), and Afghanistan (2.4 percent).

Obama touched on all these issues Wednesday night - but spent less time on each: just 1.4 percent on Iraq (4 sentences), 2.1 percent on national security (9 sentences), 1.9 percent on trade (8 sentences), 2.3 percent on terrorism (10 sentences), and 1.6 percent on Afghanistan (7 sentences).

In total, Obama spent about one-quarter of the amount of his Address on foreign policy (13.9 percent) as did Bush in 2008. This is a slight increase from the amount of sentences spent on foreign policy issues by Obama in his February 2009 Address (10.3 percent).

Other notable differences between Bush's '08 Address and Obama's 2010 Address were the 20 lines Obama spent on controlling lobbyists and trust in government and the 31 lines spent on reforming banking policy and the financial system (topics not addressed by Bush at all in 2008).

Both Bush and Obama devoted approximately the same amount of time in their speeches to taxes (5.2 percent for Bush and 4.9 percent for Obama).

Specific Policies and Messages Raised in Three Presidential Addresses Before Congress, 2008-2010 (number of sentences)

Issue
'08 (Bush)
% '08 (Bush)
'09
% '09
'10
% '10
Economy / jobs
13
4.0
28
10.0
74
17.2
Spending / debt / deficit
11
3.4
35
12.5
41
9.5
Health care
8
2.4
26
9.3
32
7.4
'Spirit of America'
0
0.0
1
0.4
31
7.2
Financial system / banks
0
0.0
50
17.8
31
7.2
Bipartisanship
3
0.9
5
1.8
29
6.7
Challenges (general)
10
3.1
31
11.0
23
5.3
Taxes
17
5.2
8
2.8
21
4.9
Lobbyists / Trust in Gov't
0
0.0
0
0.0
20
4.7
Education
19
5.8
34
12.1
18
4.2
Energy
11
3.4
22
7.8
14
3.3
Terrorism
16
4.9
6
2.1
10
2.3
National security
21
6.4
0
0.0
9
2.1
Trade
18
5.5
1
0.4
8
1.9
Afghanistan
8
2.4
2
0.7
7
1.6
Iraq
54
16.5
2
0.7
6
1.4
Veterans
12
3.7
6
2.1
5
1.2
Civil rights
0
0.0
0
0.0
5
1.2
Technology
4
1.2
1
0.4
4
0.9
Nuclear weapons
0
0.0
0
0.0
4
0.9
Housing
7
2.1
6
2.1
4
0.9
Formal remarks
1
0.3
2
0.7
4
0.9
Foreign aid
12
3.7
0
0.0
4
0.9
Entitlements (Medicare / Social Security)
4
1.2
4
1.4
4
0.9
Freedom / democracy
16
4.9
0
0.0
3
0.7
Iran
13
4.0
0
0.0
3
0.7
Haiti
0
0.0
0
0.0
3
0.7
Transportation
0
0.0
4
1.4
2
0.5
Religion
1
0.3
1
0.4
2
0.5
Environment
0
0.0
0
0.0
2
0.5
Poverty
0
0.0
0
0.0
1
0.2
North Korea
0
0.0
0
0.0
1
0.2
Immigration
10
3.1
0
0.0
1
0.2
Gender
0
0.0
0
0.0
1
0.2
Gay rights
0
0.0
0
0.0
1
0.2
Crime
0
0.0
1
0.4
1
0.2
Foreign relations (general)
0
0.0
3
1.1
1
0.2
Israel
5
1.5
1
0.4
0
0.0
Agriculture
0
0.0
1
0.4
0
0.0
Individualism
13
4.0
0
0.0
0
0.0
Charities
6
1.8
0
0.0
0
0.0
Judiciary
4
1.2
0
0.0
0
0.0
Natural disasters
4
1.2
0
0.0
0
0.0
Stem cells
3
0.9
0
0.0
0
0.0
Cloning
3
0.9
0
0.0
0
0.0
Total
327
100.0
281
100.0
430
100.0
Source: Content analysis by Smart Politics. Speeches coded are George W. Bush's January 28th, 2008 State of the Union Address, Barack Obama's February 24, 2009 Address before a Joint Session of Congress, and Obama's January 27, 2010 State of the Union Address.

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3 Comments


  • But whereas 56.6 percent of Bush's speech (measured by the number of sentences delivered) focused on the nation's foreign policy challenges, only 13.9 percent of Obama's speech touched on foreign policy issues.

    That's because Bush was scared to focus on issues at home, because they're hard work.

  • Statistical analysis is alluring to fools. Eric's agenda is obvious, and his selection of evidence transparent. Maybe Obama referred to the Spirit of America so often because he loves it more than Bush did... whereas Bush valued individualism more. There's nothing in the data... and the conclusions insinuated here are baseless. The data is useless without significant evidence for the interpretation offered... which is as deep here as a Drudge headline. This person isn't employed here, is he?

  • I wonder if the paucity of interest for this story contributed to the more slanted approach to following stories. This data is more interesting than the word count story- but the delivery is less inflammatory. Cowboy vs Professor is a better hook... though not intellectually serious.

    This reads like rhetorical analysis for a hypothetical audience who adjudicates based on their spread-sheets. If we ever dumb our people down to the point that substance is utterly trumped by statistical reductions of meaning, it could be useful (not that anyone would need it at that point).

    This data is a hook, a lead-up, or an anchor for analysis... not a substitute.

  • Leave a comment


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