A Response to Westen: Obama Neither Two-Sided nor Mysterious

Monkey Cage reader (and NYU Ph.D. candidate) Nicholas Beauchamp sends along the following response to Drew Westen’s Op Ed in the NY Times in today’s Sunday Review.

I noticed today that many political blogs are burbling with responses to Drew Westen’s essay in the NYT Sunday Review, which begins its critique of Obama with a discussion of the deficiencies of his inaugural address (see for example here here, here, here, and here.) This sudden burst of interest in Obama’s in inaugural reminded me of a quick quantitative look I took at the topic in January 2009. The results are in this chart showing the similarity between Obama’s inaugural speech and the previous century of inaugural (or first State of the Union) addresses.*

The most striking thing is that Obama’s speech is much more like past Republican ones than past Democratic ones, even given the changes in diction and issues over the decades. Another noteworthy thing is that, for all the criticism that he be more like New Deal FDR, two of the closest Democratic inaugural addresses to Obama’s were those by FDR in the 30s. It’s just that Obama’s speech was even more like Reagan, Bush 1, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, etc. Westen, like many others on the left, complains that we “have no idea what Barack Obama … believes on virtually any issue” and wonders why “he seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue”, but based on this quick analysis, Obama’s stated views seem neither two-sided nor mysterious.


*The procedure for calculating the level of similarity across the speeches is to take the percentage of each of the top 1000 words (not including simple words like “the”, “of”, etc) in each document, and then calculates the difference between Obama’s speech and each of the others, by taking the square root of the sum of the squares of the word-by-word differences (ie, the Euclidean distance between Obama and each of the other documents in the 1000-dimensional word space).

2 Responses to A Response to Westen: Obama Neither Two-Sided nor Mysterious

  1. Adam Hughes August 7, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

    Would this analysis really capture the ‘naming of a villain’ that Westen thinks is missing in Obama’s rhetoric? While the concepts and phrases Obama invokes are no doubt important – and their historical reverberations fascinating – I don’t think this measure is well suited to evaluating Westen’s argument.

    And if this is going to be the Monkey Cage’s only post about Westen’s article, I’d invite others to consider whether an anti-democratic streak runs through it – the author (through his ‘interactions’ with 50,000 Americans, I guess) claims to know what people really want, the stories they need to be told. To me, that sounds pretty elitist.

    Indeed, Obama is not an FDR – in broad strokes, he favors compromise, listening to different options, pragmatism. While that doesn’t always make for inspiring outcomes, I’d argue that it is more empowering (and appealing to voters) than the join-or-die, good guy / bad guy rhetoric that Westen advocates. If Obama starting casting the rich as the enemy, I think he’d alienate many more than his weak-kneed centrism is going to. Let’s also not forget that FDR’s in-group / out-group way with words came at a time when the world was about to begin a massive war… one in which the villains were rather obvious.

  2. auntesther August 7, 2011 at 11:59 pm #

    gee, i’d love to see the epistemological *cough* tweaking that went into this…….