A More Assertive Obama?

Feb 13 '13

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.