A quantitative look at the last 12 State of the Union addresses.
- By Ty McCormickTy McCormick is Africa Editor at Foreign Policy. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, he has reported from across much of Africa and the Middle East, including Egypt, Lebanon, Somalia, South Sudan, Burundi, Uganda, Malawi, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was a finalist for the 2015 Kurt Schork Memorial Award for International Journalism. In addition to FP, he has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and National Geographic. Ty received his bachelor’s degree from Stanford University, and a master’s from the University of Oxford, where he was a Clarendon Scholar. He received a second master's degree from the Queen's University Belfast as a George J. Mitchell Scholar.
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.