In eight national addresses, the story of a historic presidency

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This post was originally published on Bloomberg Politics on January 13, 2016.

Seven years ago, newly elected President Barack Obama addressed lawmakers in the shadow of a devastating economic crisis but buoyed by the promise of change he’d campaigned on. On Tuesday night, Obama returned to the same podium for his final State of the Union address, with an economy in much better shape but other worries clouding the horizon. He reprised that same “change” theme as his presidential swan song.

Obama mentioned “change” almost twice as often as in any of his prior (and wordier) annual addresses, according to a Bloomberg Politics analysis of the eight speech transcripts and prepared remarks. Taken together, these moments—technically seven official State of the Union speeches plus Obama’s February 2009 address to a joint session of Congress—tell the story of a presidency.


Obama on Tuesday called for change to continue beyond his presidency. That positive, forward-looking exhortation resulted in his most optimistic State of the Union in three years, according to a Quantified Communications index provided to Bloomberg Politics.


Change, for Better or Worse

The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period. Period. It’s not even close…and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead . They call us.

Obama, who made this forceful assertion of American military might on Tuesday, may well see his final term defined by the many foreign threats facing the nation. Just consider how the number of foreign countries, as well as terrorism- and military-related words, mentioned by Obama have increased from 29 in 2009 to 64 on Tuesday. The word “terrorism” itself went from three uses in 2009 to zero in 2012 to seven this year.


Where Obama can point to clear success is the first major challenge of his presidency: pulling the country out of its worst recession since World War II. Having inherited an economy that shrank by an annualized 5.4 percent and lost nearly 2.5 million jobs in his first three months in offices, it’s no surprise that Obama frequently spoke of “recession,” “crisis,” and the need for “recovery” in his first address to Congress. Over time, as the economy returned to growth and joblessness fell by half, these words faded from the president’s remarks.


Obama’s success reviving the macro-economy has failed to trickle down to average Americans’ paychecks, and he’s shown an increasing use of words like “wages” (stagnating), “middle class” (no longer a majority of the population), and “poverty” (still above 2007 levels). Despite a dip in the use of some of these specific keywords in Tuesday’s address, Obama acknowledged the issue when he said technology and globalization “have squeezed workers, even when they have jobs, even when the economy is growing.”


A two-term president’s final State of the Union speech is also about defining his legacy, and in Obama’s case, much of that is tied up in his signature Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. He had 19 uses of “health care” in his first speech in 2009, back when the uninsured rate was 17.5 percent, but only six references last year, by which time the uninsured rate had fallen to 10.5 percent.


Climate change is currently front and center thanks to Obama’s embrace of recent global talks in Paris. Energy has largely been sidelined by a fracking-assisted drop in oil prices and imports in the past few years. 


Partisan Differences

If we want a better politics, it’s not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator or even change a president. We have to change the system to reflect our better selves. 

Policy alone doesn’t tell the whole story of the Obama presidency. The president’s administration has been defined by politics itself, from a landslide victory in 2008 to a midterm “shellacking” (Obama’s own word) in 2010 and worsening political polarization ever since.

When the president’s congressional allies and his own re-election were on the line, he emphasized the word “American” to make policies seem obvious and relatable, averaging 30 mentions of “Americans” or “the American people” in election-year State of the Union speeches but only 19 in off years. The same goes for the adjective “American.” Republicans, likewise aiming to appeal to a broad swath of the population on State of the Union night, have adopted the same seesaw trend in their official responses.


Where the president and his GOP rivals differ—and substantially—is on what those “American” policy priorities are. While Obama called for more support for unemployed Americans, Republicans pushed for lighter burdens on those already in work, mentioning taxes almost twice as often as the president. And though health care became a fait accompli after 2009 for Obama, who devoted little of his annual addresses to the issue, it remains unfinished business for Republicans like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who presented her party’s official rebuttal on Tuesday.

Obama’s record “has often fallen far short of his soaring words,” she said. “We’re feeling a crushing national debt” and “a health care plan that has made insurance less affordable.”


People and Places

Ever since President Ronald Reagan commended federal employee Lenny Skutnik in his 1982 State of the Union speech for rescuing a drowning woman in the Potomac River, presidents have often highlighted everyday Americans and their stories to humanize White House policy proposals. The tough choice for the president and his staff each year is where and whom to focus on.

In all, Obama has referenced 31 of 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., leaving out much of the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain states. But the states he does call out—be it Michigan to praise Detroit’s rescued car industry or Connecticut to remember the school shooting in Newtown —ultimately account for about 87 percent of the American people. 


Across his eight annual speeches, Obama made mention of 74 individual people by name, including 47 white men (nearly half of whom were U.S. presidents or members of Congress), 19 women, and 27 Americans hand-picked for their inspirational or tragic stories.


Last night’s speech was different in that Obama didn’t mention any everyday American by name. Instead, he devoted his closing crescendo to 16 anonymous American archetypes. Some were traditional, from “the soldier who gives almost everything to save his brothers” to “the worker on the assembly line who clocked extra shifts to keep his company open.” While others more progressive, like “the son who finds the courage to come out as who he is” and “the DREAMer who stays up late to finish her science project.” 

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