Word Clouds for the State of the Union

Pattern Recognition has a word cloud for Bush’s State of the Union address, in which words are weighted according to frequency. So, “terrorism” and “security” appear very, very bold, because Bush mentioned them time and time again in his address. And the word “plan” is much smaller, indicating that it was rarely used in Bush’s speech. And some words that you would think might occur in his national address (say, “New Orleans” or “Katrina”) do not appear at all in the cloud.

While this word cloud is a great visual clue to what we might consider the president’s working vocabulary, I think more can be gleaned by comparing multiple clouds. For example, let’s look at Bush’s 2001 State of the Union, given just months after he lost the popular vote:

additional america americans billion budget care children country debt earn education energy families federal freedom fund government health hope important income increase medicare meet military money nation needs pay people percent plan programs promote rate reading reform relief save schools security social spending support tax test tonight work years yet

created at TagCrowd.com

Here you can see the top 50 words in Bush’s 2001 State of the Union. The word “terrorism” doesn’t even register. Neither does “oil”–which is one of the top 50 words in this year’s speech. Instead, we have domestically-oriented words, like “schools,” “energy”, and “budget.” Iraq isn’t on the radar screen either. So, what we have is a snapshot of Bush’s pre-9/11 policy, one that betrays no hint of the grievous domestic and foreign blunders Bush is soon to make.

Now look at Bush’s 2002 State of the Union, delivered just months after the 9/11 attacks:

11th afghanistan allies america american best budget camps children citizens congress corps country depend destruction develop evil free freedom health homeland hope increase jobs join lives months nation opportunity people protect regimes retirement security states tax terror terrorist terrorists thousands tonight training united war weapons women work workers world yet

created at TagCrowd.com

“Terror” and “Terrorism” bump up into the top 50. “Afghanistan” is there, too (note that it’s not in the most recent address, even though the war there still rages on, and bin Laden is still at large). The word “weapon” now makes an appearance too, foreshadowing the rhetoric of “weapons of mass destruction” that will soon be used to justify the war in Iraq. As for “Iraq” itself, the word doesn’t crack the top 50 in 2002, even though we now know that the idea of invading Iraq was already a routine topic of discussion behind closed doors at the White House.

Of course, word clouds on their own provide no context, so the prevalence of any given word doesn’t tell you what the speaker is saying about that word, whether it’s being used with a positive valence or negative valence. But a word cloud certainly does give you an idea of what the limits of any given text are–what it includes and excludes, and therefore, what ideas are on the table and which are not. Funny, the word–and therefore the concept–“peace” never appears on the table. Neither does “diplomacy.” It’s as if both the end and the means to what we really need to accomplish in the world are missing.

1 thought on “Word Clouds for the State of the Union”

  1. More Political Tag Clouds

    It doesn’t attempt the kind of analysis I try with the State of the Union addresses, but chir.ag has a great visual tool that builds tag clouds for hundreds of important presidential speeches and texts, all the way back to…

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