A More Assertive Obama?

This is a guest post from Stephen Benedict Dyson.


Is President Obama, re-elected and having learned the lessons of his first term, more assertive now? Much of the analysis of the 2013 State of the Union and second Inaugural Address suggests so. Can we provide some data to support or challenge this impression?

Employing a blend of political science, psychology, and communication studies, a group of scholars argue that analyzing the speeches of presidents can reveal some important markers of their worldview. How much complexity does the president see in the political environment and the issues they confront? How much ability do they believe they have to shape events?

I collected the transcripts of Obama’s five State of the Union speeches and two Inaugural Addresses to test the hypothesis that the re-elected president has adopted a new, more assertive guise – defined here as a more definitive view of a political environment seen as more under Obama’s control.

I looked for two characteristics – the complexity of worldview (a simple ratio of words tagged as complex and contingent versus those tagged as simple and definitive) and the belief in ability to control events (verbs indicative of taking or planning action as a proportion of total verbs). Although the coding rules are entirely separate, these two measures go together logically – complicated environments being harder to master. They also often co-vary empirically. The speeches were processed using a software coding program and rules developed by Margaret G. Hermann. The resulting scores can range from 0 (lowest) to 1 (highest) but in practice are distributed around means established by comparing a group of leaders speaking in similar contexts or the same leader over time – as here.

Obama is indeed more assertive and definitive post re-election. The level of complexity with which he described the world in the 2013 State of the Union was much lower than in his previous addresses (about 4 standard deviations). His perception of control was also higher in the 2013 address than in any previous address, although the difference on this measure is less substantial.

Obama spoke, then, in a more straightforward, definitive, and assertive manner. This was just one speech, and so we should be wary of over-reading from it. However, the same pattern holds if we compare his second Inaugural of 2013 – labeled by a former White House aide as the melody to the State of the Union’s lyrics – to his first Inaugural of 2009. Obama’s second Inaugural showed the same pattern of much lower complexity and marginally higher markers of control.

There are some caveats to this kind of analysis (gated). Analyzing just a few speeches, and not the full corpus of a leader’s speeches and interviews across many topics and many years, increases the likelihood of impression management and strategic speechmaking explanations being at least part of the story. We would want to see the same pattern across a far greater sample of text and a much longer time-span – as well as see congruence with Obama’s behavior – before concluding that the president has fundamentally changed the way he sees the world.

Nonetheless, the State of the Union and the Second Inaugural reveal a more definitive and assertive president, something his supporters have longed to see.

10 Responses to A More Assertive Obama?

  1. Andrew Rudalevige February 13, 2013 at 9:16 pm #

    Interesting post. A quick query – if you take out the gun control segment towards the end of the speech, where Obama moved out of State of the Union mode to something much more folksy (“they deserve a simple vote!”), would the distinction drop between 2013 and the other speeches drop out?

    • Stephen Dyson February 14, 2013 at 11:53 am #

      Hi Andrew – interesting hypothesis. The 408 words in question (beginning with “Of course, what I’ve said tonight…” and ending with “absolutely necessary work of self-government”) score: belief in ability to control events = .60, complexity = .53. So Obama is asserting more control or intention to take action here and about the same complexity as the rest of the speech. The speech absent that section scores BACE = .46, C = .52. So much the same. 408 words is an extremely small sample for this kind of analysis (so few coding opportunities that an odd word here and there makes a big difference to the results). It’s also too few to make a difference to the overall scores for the speech.

      • Andrew Rudalevige February 14, 2013 at 9:54 pm #

        Thanks for checking it out!

  2. Alex Badas February 14, 2013 at 12:10 am #

    Interesting post. I was curious, so I downloaded the software and ran through Rubio’s response. If anyone is interested, the scoring is as follows:
    Belief in ability to control events: 0
    Complexity: .4
    Distrust of others: 0
    Ingroup bias: .66
    Need for power: 0
    Self-confidence: .2
    Task focused: .6

  3. JP February 14, 2013 at 2:46 am #

    For the sotu data the sample size is only five. If data was collected on more of Obamas speeches I wonder what the standard deviation would be. Just based on my intuition it seems like this metric would vary quite a bit.

  4. Dan T. February 14, 2013 at 4:44 am #

    You get paid for this bullshit, John? Like the President writes his own speeches.

    • John Sides February 14, 2013 at 10:36 am #

      Dan T., if you read carefully, you’ll see that I didn’t write this post. But I’m happy to respond. It’s true that speech-writers and others are involved in crafting an address like the SOTU, but presidents contribute as well, as this piece makes clear:


      • Stephen Dyson February 14, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

        There are a slew of interesting questions that can be asked about using speeches in this way – there’s a really good discussion, along with some empirical testing of different possibilities, in the forum I linked to under “caveats”. As the article John kindly posted indicates, most of the time speechwriters work interactively with the principal and within the boundaries set out by them. A related challenge to inference is whether speeches reveal anything other than impression management strategies (as opposed to genuine beliefs). We’ll want to continue to monitor Obama’s speeches and his behavior to see if the change apparent above is real or just temporary impression management.

      • Dan T. February 17, 2013 at 8:03 pm #

        Yeah, sorry, I did not read carefully. My attempt at giving you a hard time has failed.

        I’m doing better, btw. Thanks for your help.

  5. Overleaf February 16, 2013 at 4:24 am #

    It is nonsense such as this article that gives social science a bad name. Just shows there is no science in social science.

    That is why we should stop subsidizing students who wish to graduate in BS artistry — which is sociology. The world would be a much nicer place without such nonsense.