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

Aug 7 '11

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).