Capstones: Word Games

By Alan W. Dowd, 1.5.16

Words are never more important than actions, but words matter, especially a president’s words. Using language to steer the nation is part of a president’s job. The American presidency, after all, is “the bully pulpit.” Theodore Roosevelt coined the term to underscore the rhetorical power a president can wield. TR understood well that a president’s words provide form and focus to his policies, rally or deflate the American people, reflect the national mood, reassure or worry America’s friends, and send signals to America’s foes. This sometimes-overlooked truth is especially relevant on the eve of President Obama’s final State of the Union address—a venue which provides perhaps the largest and loudest megaphone for the bully pulpit.

A research partner recently shared a fascinating statistical compilation of the words used by presidents in their State of the Union (SOU) addresses. The compilation dates back to 1934, providing a window into how America’s place in the world, purpose in the world and perception of itself have changed over the last eight decades.

A United Nation?
There has been a steady decline in use of the word “united” since FDR, perhaps reflecting the American people growing less united as we move further away from the unifying task of World War II.

To be fair, keeping the United States united has always been a challenge. From the very beginning, the American people have valued the individual and exalted individualism. After all, this is where the “Don’t tread on me” flag once waved—and still waves in some places. As Tocqueville concluded in Democracy in America, arguably the most insightful assessment of the American character ever written, individualism has its benefits but sometimes “saps the virtues of public life” and taken to extremes can lead to “downright selfishness.”

Indeed, unbridled individualism seems to have eroded the connective tissue that serves to unite Americans. Instead of shared responsibilities, there is a demand for rights, a sense of entitlement, a scramble to claim, a dissection of the nation into ever-smaller interest groups and voting blocs. And so, it seems there is more dividing us than uniting us.

Yet we are supposed to be one people. Our constitution, after all, begins with “We, the people”—not “I, the individual.” And our national motto is E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one.” If that phrase ceases to have meaning to Americans, this young century will not be another American century.

Related, use of the word “nation”—a word FDR often employed in his wartime SOU addresses—has seen a steady decline since the Nixon era. Obama registers some of the lowest uses of the word.

Perhaps the disappearance of this word from SOU addresses is a function of fewer and fewer Americans viewing themselves as connected to their nation. This stands to reason, as two divergent forces—globalization and hyphenization—have eroded the importance of the nation in daily life.

Hyphenization is used to describe the stuff that gets in the way of our connections to our nation—all the adjectives we line up in front of “American.” They can be related to birthplace, workplace, race, religion, station in life. For example, there are 18 different racial categories/groups listed on the Census form.

This is not a new problem. TR criticized “hyphenated Americanism” more than a century ago. What may be new is the sheer number of ways we can separate ourselves from our fellow Americans nowadays in this narrowcast nation.

What unites the American nation is not race or religion, creed or color, birthplace or blood, but a profound idea—that all men are created equal, that the Creator has endowed us with certain rights, that government is instituted by the people to serve the people, not the other way around.

As for globalization, it allows us to consider ourselves “citizens of the world.” But when China violates the sovereignty of its neighbors, Russia erases international borders, ISIS tears through Paris, al Qaeda maims Manhattan, journalists are kidnapped and pirates seize cargo ships, the victims don’t turn to multinational corporations or supranational NGOs for help. They turn to nation-states—usually the most powerful nation-state. Critics of the United States may refuse to recognize America’s special role. But by turning to America for help when bad things happen, they are tacitly conceding that America is, well, special.

Conditioned to view patriotic sentiment as politically incorrect or old-fashioned, too many Americans either dismiss American exceptionalism or apologize for it. But no matter what Hollywood sells us, no matter what colleges teach us, not matter what the press tells us, this nation is special. Name another nation where an Afghan immigrant becomes its UN ambassador, where a refugee from Czechoslovakia becomes its secretary of state, where a Taiwanese or Cuban immigrant becomes a cabinet official, where a kid begins life as a Soviet refugee, survives the Nazis, flees the Red Army and becomes Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“We’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important,” Reagan advised, warning that “an eradication of the American memory” could lead to “an erosion of the American spirit.” A quarter-century later—as schools teach about the fads of the present rather than the enduring truths of the past, as parts of the nation balkanize into ethno-national shards, as political leaders struggle to grasp American exceptionalism, as the very notion of nationhood fades—we know Reagan’s prognosis was accurate.

Left Unsaid

Bush 43 and FDR, both wartime presidents, used the term “victory” far more often than their peers. Obama has used it only once—and not in reference to the war on terrorism. 

Not coincidentally, Bush 43 and FDR spoke of the “enemy” and “enemies” far more than did other presidents.

Indeed, it’s striking that in an age of terrorism, with U.S. troops waging pitched battles against terrorist groups around the world, the word “terrorism” was virtually absent from Obama’s SOU addresses in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, and was used sparingly in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Bush 43 used the word most often. But both Clinton and Reagan employed it more than Obama.

Of course, Obama’s words unspoken merely reflect the mood of the American people. Fifty-six percent of Americans say counterterror operations in Afghanistan are not worth the costs; 61 percent say anti-ISIS operations are failing; 74 percent say the U.S. should focus on problems here at home.

In tune with this increasingly insular electorate, Obama made good on his pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, declared that “core al Qaeda” was “on the path to defeat” in 2013, invited the American people “to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq” in 2014, called the Paris terror attacks a “setback” in 2015, and generally downplayed the war on terrorism.

One word that Obama hasn’t left unspoken is “jobs.” Obama used some variation of the word 47 times in his 2013 SOU; his average use of the word in the last three SOU addresses is 38. This is part of a much larger trend: There has been a steady rise in use of “job/jobs” since FDR. When plotted on a bar graph, use of the word has increased like a stair-step since the 1930s. Under Obama, use of “job/jobs” in the SOU jumps each year and almost doubles any of his predecessors’ peak uses.

World Weary

Since 1980, Bush 41 and Bush 43 talked about the “world” more than other presidents, though not as much as Carter, Truman or FDR. Truman talked about the “world” more than any president surveyed. “References to the world, have fallen slowly over time,” the survey compilers note. 

The attacks of 9/11 and America’s consequent overseas engagements explain the younger Bush’s use of “world.” The fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of the USSR and Gulf War explain the elder Bush’s. What’s more puzzling is the relative absence of the word from Obama’s SOU addresses. As referenced above, this is probably a function of the world-weariness of the American people, which Obama tapped into as a candidate and as commander-in-chief.

There’s been a dramatic decline in usage of “Europe” since Truman, perhaps reflecting the declining importance of Europe to Americans since World War II. There was brief uptick during the elder Bush’s presidency, when communism collapsed in Eastern Europe.

Related, there has been a virtual disappearance of the word “alliance” from SOU addresses. Ike, LBJ and both Bushes used the word a little, JFK a lot. But most of the others used it seldom, if ever.

Again, this is a reflection of the national mood. Fifty-eight percent of Americans say the U.S. should not take the lead role in tackling international problems. And 52 percent say the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own”—up from 30 percent in 2002 and 20 percent in 1964.

The challenge for this president and the next is to make the case for international engagement. As Secretary of State John Kerry warns, “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism…Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.”

A Changing Portrait

There has been a drastic increase in use of the word “change.” The trend began in the second half of the Carter presidency. Use of the word declined during the “It’s morning in America” Reagan years, then spiked during Bush 41 and remained high during Clinton’s first term, before falling in the boom times that marked the second half of the 1990s. “Change” appeared frequently under Bush 43 and rose to Carter levels under Obama. Obama used some variant of the word 12 times in 2010, 13 in 2011.

This would seem to reflect a restlessness and dissatisfaction among the American people. Yet beginning in 1982, there’s a dramatic rise in the use of “safe/safer.” This would seem to reflect the nation’s desire for the safety and stability guaranteed by security over the inherent risks that come with freedom and change.

Speaking of freedom, Reagan’s use of the word is the highest of all the surveyed SOU addresses, followed closely by Bush 43. Obama’s use of the word is dramatically lower, especially when juxtaposed with Bush 43. Obama used “freedom” just once in his 2014 SOU and just once in his 2015 SOU. On the other hand, Obama used some variation of “security” 18 times in his 2013 SOU, 12 times in 2014, eight times in 2015.

Add it all up, and we are left with a portrait of an increasingly inward-looking populace that seems more interested in safety and security—and less united—than in decades past. It’s a worrisome picture.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose