Feature

Speech by Numbers

A quantitative look at the last 12 State of the Union addresses.

In his fifth* State of the Union address this week, President Barack Obama will focus on the economy. He'll talk about job creation and strengthening the middle class; about investing in infrastructure, education, and clean energy; and -- if the leaks prove accurate -- about addressing the threat of climate change. One thing he won't spend much time talking about is foreign policy, a topic to which he has devoted less than 10 minutes in each of his previous addresses, according to the Washington Post. Last year, the president spoke for just six minutes about foreign policy and mentioned al Qaeda only twice, despite having dramatically ramped up covert operations against terrorists worldwide and carried out more than four times as many drone strikes as George W. Bush.

How does Obama's rhetoric compare to that of his predecessor, who launched the war on terror in 2001? Foreign Policy crunched the numbers, so you don't have to slog through all 12 speeches yourself -- and the results are even more dramatic than we anticipated. The two presidents spoke about terrorism in radically different ways, with Bush devoting long passages in each of his post-9/11 State of the Union addresses to the "manmade evil of international terrorism" and Obama remaining relatively tight-lipped about threats from abroad. In his four State of the Unions to date, Obama has mentioned "terrorists," "extremists," or "al Qaeda" an average of 4.5 times per speech -- compared with Bush's average of 33.1 in the post-9/11 era.

But if Obama has proved less inclined to histrionics -- in 2010 he went as far as warning Republicans to "put aside the schoolyard taunts about who is tough" -- his speeches actually have several surprising features in common with Bush's. The most notable similarity is silence on Afghanistan, where violence is higher than it was before the troop surge in 2010 and where the notoriously weak Afghan National Security Forces are expected to take over all combat operations by the end of 2014.

Ignoring Afghanistan has become something of a presidential tradition. With the exception of Bush's 2002 address, in which he mentioned "Afghan" or "Afghanistan" 14 times, America's longest war has been referenced only 4.8 times per speech, on average. Compare that to Iraq, which has been mentioned an average of 18.3 times per speech during the same time period.

Even in 2010, when Obama was in the process of implementing a 33,000-troop surge, he devoted only one brief paragraph to Afghanistan, saying that United States would increase troops and training for Afghan forces "so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011 and our troops can begin to come home." In other words, the most important piece of information about Afghanistan is that we're leaving. Ditto in 2012, when Obama said, "We've begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan. Ten thousand of our troops have come home. Twenty-three thousand more will leave by the end of this summer."

*Bush's 2001 address and Obama's 2009 address are technically not State of the Union addresses, though they are treated as such by many historians.

Both Obama and Bush have been similarly sparing in their references to Pakistan, the nuclear-armed hotbed of extremism that is critical to both the Afghan war and the war on terror. In the post-9/11 era, Pakistan has been mentioned less than once per State of the Union address, on average. This is an especially puzzling feature of the Obama era given the importance assigned to Pakistan in the White House's 2009 strategic review of Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, who was tapped by Obama to head up the review, Pakistan is "the most dangerous country in the world today, where every nightmare of the twenty-first century -- terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the danger of nuclear war, dictatorship, poverty, and drugs -- come together in one place."

Nonetheless, in 2010, less than a year after Riedel briefed Obama on his findings, Obama failed to mention Pakistan even once in his message to Congress. In the two State of the Union addresses since then, he has mentioned Pakistan exactly twice, and only to note al Qaeda's presence there, not to assign the country any broader strategic significance. He did, however, find time in his 2012 address to mention Osama bin Laden, whom he noted "is not a threat to this country."

One final area of interest where Bush and Obama have a surprising level of overlap is the environment. Although Obama made major clean-energy pushes in 2010 and 2012, his predecessor was actually fairly reliable about putting in a good word for Planet Earth. Bush mentioned "environment" more than twice per speech, on average, whereas Obama has only said the word once in four years. (Neither Bush nor Obama has said "green" in a State of the Union address, however.)

How much a president's choice of words actually matters at the end of the day is certainly up for debate. But the bully pulpit remains an important component of presidential power, and the president's ability to use the State of the Union to set the agenda is real and consequential. It's no coincidence, for instance, that Afghanistan was both woefully under-resourced and eclipsed by Iraq in the majority of Bush's speeches. Then again, it's difficult to argue that counterterrorism isn't one of Obama's top priorities, though he's said barely a whisper about it in his four previous State of the Union addresses. Maybe there are some things the president feels are better left unsaid.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Feature

Whoppers of the Union

Fact-checking a decade's worth of the president's big speech.

As U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to deliver his fourth State of the Union address this Tuesday, it's worth commemorating the 10th anniversary of George W. Bush's infamous 2003 SOTU. In that address, Bush's "16 words" about Saddam Hussein pursuing Nigerien yellowcake led to ex post critical op-eds, which led to the politically motivated leaks, which led to the outing of covert operatives, which led to the prosecution of White House officials, which led to controversial presidential commutations, which ultimately led to book deals, Vanity Fair spreads, and movies starring Naomi Watts.

Nothing else said in the past decade's worth of State of the Union addresses has led to anything so extreme (or, insofar as Naomi Watts is concerned, as lovely), but it got us to thinking. It would be hard to prove that Bush knew he was distorting the truth when he uttered those 16 words. What other foreign or economic policy lulus did Bush and Obama say in their previous SOTUs? After a quick review, I was able to find at least two major whoppers in every State of the Union address in the past decade. Let's go to the archives!

The 2004 State of the Union address:

1.     "The men and women of Afghanistan are building a nation that is free and proud and fighting terror."

According to the Freedom House's 2013 Index, Afghanistan is rated as "not free." And according to Vision of Humanity's Global Terrorism Index, in 2012 Afghanistan ranked 3rd out of 158 countries in terrorist attacks. If Afghanistan is fighting terror, it's not doing a very good job of it.

2.     "Already, the Kay report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations. Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day."

Bush was citing the Iraq Survey Group's October 2003 interim report. In the end, David Kay resigned from the Iraq Study Group after concluding that "we were almost all wrong" in Senate testimony. The Duelfer Report concluded that Saddam Hussein had in fact abandoned all WMD programs after the end of the 1991 Gulf War. Oops.

The 2005 State of the Union address:

1.     "It is time for an immigration policy that permits temporary guest workers to fill jobs Americans will not take, that rejects amnesty, that tells us who is entering and leaving our country and that closes the border to drug dealers and terrorists."

Eight years later, maybe -- maybe -- Bush's sense of urgency will be realized.

2.     "The beginnings of reform and democracy in the Palestinian territories are now showing the power of freedom to break old patterns of violence and failure."

At the insistence of the Bush administration -- and despite warnings from both Israeli and moderate Palestinian politicians -- elections were held in the Palestinian territories a year later, leading to a surprise victory for Hamas. Bush's freedom agenda wasn't vocalized so much after that.

The 2006 State of the Union address:

1.     "We're on the offensive in Iraq, with a clear plan for victory.... I am confident in our plan for victory. I am confident in the will of the Iraqi people. I am confident in the skill and spirit of our military. Fellow citizens, we are in this fight to win, and we are winning.

By December of 2006, the Iraq Study Group determined that the military situation on the ground in Iraq was "grave and deteriorating."The worsening situation on the ground helped trigger a landslide Democratic victory in November 2006, and eventually required a radical rethinking of counterinsurgency operations, leading to the "surge." Indeed, in his 2007 SOTU, Bush would detail at quite some length the worsening situation in Iraq.

2.     "The Palestinian people have voted in elections. And now the leaders of Hamas must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism and work for lasting peace."

Seven years later, it appears Hamas is perfectly comfortable not recognizing Israel, conducting acts of terrorism, and rejecting any negotiations for a lasting peace.

The 2007 State of the Union address:

1.     "In the coming weeks, I will submit a budget that eliminates the federal deficit within the next five years. I ask you to make the same commitment. Together, we can restrain the spending appetite of the federal government and we can balance the federal budget."

You can insert your own fiscal joke here.

2.     "Iraq's leaders have committed themselves to a series of benchmarks to achieve reconciliation: to share oil revenues among all of Iraq's citizens, to put the wealth of Iraq into the rebuilding of Iraq, to allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation's civic life, to hold local elections and to take responsibility for security in every Iraqi province."

It's worth remembering that the primary purpose of the surge was to give Iraqi politicians the space to achieve political reconciliation. While U.S. forces managed to achieve significant military successes, it would be hard to argue that Iraq's leaders achieved any of these commitments.

The 2008 State of the Union address:

1.     Next week, I'll send you a budget that terminates or substantially reduces 151 wasteful or bloated programs, totaling more than $18 billion. The budget that I will submit will keep America on track for a surplus in 2012."

In the fiscal year 2012, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the United States had a federal budget deficit of more than$1 trillion.

2.     "We're working for a successful Doha Round of trade talks, and we must complete a good agreement this year."

The Doha Round is as dead as a doornail, and Bush's last trade representative recommended proclaiming it as such three years after this SOTU.

The 2009 State of the Union Address:

1.     "I intend to hold these banks fully accountable for the assistance they receive, and this time, they will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer. This time, CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet."

AIG, which received more than $180 billion in government money, nevertheless paid out substantial bonuses to top corporate officials later in 2009.

2.     "To overcome extremism, we must also be vigilant in upholding the values our troops defend --because there is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America. That is why I have ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay..."

Gitmo remains open to this day.

The 2010 State of the Union address:

1.     "Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades, it's time to try something new."

Again, insert your own joke here.

2.     "We have gone from a bystander to a leader in the fight against climate change."

Three years later, even supporters of the Obama administration acknowledge that not much was accomplished in the first term on climate-change policy.

The 2011 State of the Union address:

1.     "Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation's Sputnik moment."

Google Trends suggest that if there was a "Sputnik moment," it came and passed very quickly.

2.     "In the coming year, we'll also work to rebuild people's faith in the institution of government."

Gallup data suggests that President Obama did not succeed in that task in 2011. To be fair, Congress certainly helped.

The 2012 State of the Union address:

1.     "[In the Middle East] we will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings --men and women; Christians, Muslims, and Jews. We will support policies that lead to strong and stable democracies and open markets, because tyranny is no match for liberty. And we will safeguard America's own security against those who threaten our citizens, our friends, and our interests."

One would be hard-pressed to describe the administration's Syria policy as standing "against violence and intimidation," or its performance in Benghazi as protecting "America's own security against those who threaten our citizens."

2.     "[A]nyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn't know what they're talking about."

The Pew Global Attitudes project suggests that either a lot of the world doesn't know what they're talking about, or that President Obama was wrong.

Let's see what he's got cooked up for us this year....

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