Rhetorical inventory of Obama’s budget, deficit speech reveals talking points, strategy

The torrent of news stories, analyses, editorials, columns and blog posts about President Obama’s speech on his budget plan focused, appropriately, on the numbers.

But there’s another way to look at it: analyzing the speaker’s words in ways that reveal as much about the content as the dollar signs that pepper its paragraphs. This approach employs a tool that linguists rely on in their study of human language. It’s a concordance, an alphabetical list of the principal words in a text that can be sorted by the number of times they are used.

President Barack Obama outlines his fiscal policy during an address at George Washington University in Washington, Wednesday, April 13, 2011. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Before computers, generating these rhetorical inventories was such an arduous, time-consuming project that they were limited to literature’s big guns: The Works of Shakespeare, the Bible, Koran and the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism.

Now digitized texts and software make a concordance just a few keystrokes away.

One of the simplest concordances are those that crunch word frequencies to view patterns, like the one that the British newspaper The Guardian produced in 2010, comparing Obama’s first State of the Union speech with those delivered by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt,  John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush “to see where president’s focus lay.” There are also other ways language lovers can aim a spotlight on a politician’s rhetorical skill or lack thereof.

Word frequencies (selected ever-so-carefully by speechwriters, spin doctors and political consultants) offer another prism to examine the messages behind Obama’s attempt to seize control of an issue as vital — and polarizing — as reducing the federal deficit and the path the President wants to take to achieve that goal.

Here are three examples.

Spread the Wealth: Income and class
Words Frequency of use in speech
Wealthiest Americans/Wealthiest 2 per cent of Americans/ Wealthier/Wealthy/Most fortunate 9
Millionaire/Millionaires 4
Billionaire/Billionaires 3
Seniors 11
Middle class 8
Poor children/Poor families/Less fortunate 5
Working families/Working Americans 3
The Vision Thing
Words Frequency
Believe 27
Future 17
Vision/Visions 15
Talking Points: The Focus of the Speech
Words Frequency
Deficit/Deficits 28
Reduce/Reducing/Reduction/Reductions 23
Spending 23
Pay (verb) 17
Debt 17
Medicare 18
Tax cut/cuts 11
Social Security 11
Medicaid 10
Taxes 7
Defense/Military 5
Tax breaks 2

As in any speech, what isn’t mentioned is often as revealing as what is. Here are words that President Obama did not use in his speech:

  • Entitlements
  • Rich
  • Welfare
  • Redistribution
  • Hope

This concordance was created using DEVONthink software.

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