Words Count: Obama Downplays War

Analysis of public record finds president's words on war numbered

He may be presiding over two wars and facing a terror threat at home and abroad, but you'd hardly know it from listening to President Barack Obama speak.

Obama has uttered more than a half-million words in public since taking office Jan. 20 - and a POLITICO analysis of nearly every word in this vast public record shows that domestic topics dominate, so much so that Obama sounds more like a peacetime president than a commander-in-chief with more than 100,000 troops in the field.

He has spoken the words "health" and "economy" each more often than the words “Iraq,” “Iran,” “Afghanistan” and “terrorism” combined, the analysis shows.

"Jobs" are mentioned twice as often as “security,” and four times more than “war.”

“America” and its cousin “American” — feel-good favorites for speechwriters – combine to top the list of major nouns, with 2,929 mentions. 

And equally telling are the words all but banished from the Obama lexicon. The president has come under fire from progressive groups for failing to advance a gay-rights agenda. Indeed, he has said the word “gay” only 13 times while in office, according to the POLITICO analysis. 

“Abortion” received just 15 mentions, and “immigration” came in at 39. 

Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton said Obama spends much of his time focused on the wars abroad and defending the homeland, frequently consulting with his national security team, meeting with military commanders and troops and “carrying out the solemn task of visiting wounded warriors and signing letters to families of the fallen.” 

“The president’s record of standing by our troops, launching new strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and restoring our leadership in the world stands for itself. Nothing is more important to the president than keeping the American people safe,” he said. 

Still, it's no secret that Obama has presiding over a predominantly domestic agenda, facing an economic crisis he inherited upon taking office but also launching an ambitious health reform drive likely to dominate the remainder of his first year.

To some Democrats, Obama's word choice is spot-on, a reflection of the themes he used to get elected and the concerns on the minds of Americans.

“Perfect,” said Democratic strategist Paul Begala, when told that the economy and health were high on the list. “That’s why he’s the president of the United States today. He was elected principally on the economy and health care.” 

But the disparity in his choice of language between topics domestic and foreign — with every word uttered by a president carefully weighed and vetted - is so distinct that Republicans charge that it shows a predisposition toward downplaying the threats abroad, the ones that his predecessor George W. Bush faced.

“That tells you everything you need to know about the priorities of this administration,” says Marc Thiessen, a former chief speechwriter to Bush. “Clearly, President Obama has made health care a priority and the war on terrorism a lot less of a priority.” 

Bush favorites like “evil” (14), “liberty” (24) and “freedom” (92) come up far less with Obama.

To be sure, Obama has given major speeches on his policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. He discussed abortion in a May speech at Notre Dame, and he addressed a gathering of gay-rights activists at the White House in June, where he promised to fight for their top priorities.

Yet presidential speechwriters say that the words spoken by a commander-in-chief offer a glimpse into the mind of the president, a snapshot of what he wants the public to think about his presidency at any given moment. Looking at the list of most frequently spoken words, Thiessen said, “It doesn’t turn out that way by luck. These are conscious decisions.”

In tabulating the totals, POLITICO set out to count every presidential word spoken this year, from Inauguration Day through Obama’s July 22 news conference – a total of at least 670,000 – by compiling every public remark and address on the White House’s website, and adding in about 50 interviews not found on whitehouse.gov.

Legal word-counting software tallied the frequency, and POLITICO combined usages of different forms of a word into the total count – so, for instance, the count for “terrorism” includes mentions of “terror” “terrorist” and “terrorism.”

One word spoken only a single time is a reminder that a misplaced word can trip up a presidency: “stupidly.”

Obama said in the July 22 news conference that Cambridge police acted “stupidly” in arresting Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his home. That set off a racial controversy that led the president to invite Gates and the officer who arrested him to the White House for a beer.

Obama may never say the word “stupidly” again, at least in public. “You can make a mistake with a word or a phrase or a sentence or a paragraph, and it’s going to become memorable,” said former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart.

That was off the cuff. But a typical presidential speech is vetted by as many as a dozen officials before it lands on the president’s teleprompter for delivery. Any given word travels a circuitous path through the bureaucracy before it is cleared for use by the president in prepared speeches and remarks.

Every word is finely honed. In the Bush White House, it could take as long as four days for a speech to be vetted by all the relevant officials, said Ed Gillespie, a former counselor to Bush. A flurry of emails flies back and forth as officials weigh the nuance of each sentence. “Every word the president says is scrutinized, parsed and analyzed,” said Gillespie. “Every word lives forever.”

After distilling the messages so carefully, presidents tend to use them again and again. “You really have to hammer home a message,” said former Bush spokesman Scott McClellan. “And that means repetition, repetition, repetition if you’re going to get it to cut through and get it to sink in with the public.”

It is word pairs, though, that show the Obama White House’s rhetorical choices in action.

Obama has said the word “Israel” 219 times, and the word “Palestinian” 132 times.

He has said “Iran” 324 times, but “Korea” – whether North or South – only 117 times.

His election themes of “hope” (298) and “change” (641) came up less than might be expected.

And the trend plays out even in the much less serious realm of sports. The president has said “basketball” 33 times, but “hockey” only once.

Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen said Obama needs to throw more rhetorical elbows or risk ceding key psychological turf to his detractors, such as Republicans (178). Voters would relate better to the reform narrative Obama is pushing if the president invoked bad guys more often, Westen said.

“If he ever talks about antagonists, he always either describes them as these highly generalized, impersonal naysayers or he speaks in the passive voice,” Westen said. “That structure of narrative doesn’t stick. If you tried to tell that kind of story to your kids they’d say, ‘Daddy, read me a different book.’”

Linguistics professor George Lakoff, of the University of California, Berkeley, looks to specific words that show Obama trying to deliver a subtle message.

“‘Already’ (527) and ‘done’ (623) are very interesting because he’s saying: ‘We’re making progress, we are doing it,’” Lakoff said. That’s a sign that Obama is trying to convince voters that the administration is racking up a steady stream of accomplishments. “He says, ‘We passed that, it’s done’ and so on.”

And another word Lakoff spots in Obama’s rhetoric: “reform” (738). Lakoff thinks political pollsters are leaving their fingerprints on Obama’s speeches there. “I’m sure it’s a polled word,” he said. “The word ‘reform’ means there was something wrong with it before and it needs to be changed.”

Begala says the list suggests a remarkable focus on the part of Obama. He contrasts that with President Bill Clinton, who was dogged by off-topic subjects throughout his first six months in office, including two failed candidates for attorney general.

“For somebody who lived through gays in the military, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, this president’s ability to focus is music to my ears,” Begala said.

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