The University of Texas at Austin
  • Prof says Obama's speech suggests little optimism, emotional distance

    By Gary Susswein
    Gary Susswein
    Published: Jan. 28, 2010

    President Barack Obama’s word choice in the State of the Union Address reveals a complex and dynamic thinker who is surprisingly cool and distant, according to James Pennebaker, chair of the Psychology Department.

    Using a computer program he’s developed to measure the relationship between language and personality, Pennebaker compared the words Obama used to the State of the Union addresses delivered by every president since Harry S. Truman in 1946.

    Obama’s words were similar to those he used in the address he gave to Congress in early 2009. He is becoming a little more dynamic in his thinking and slightly less positive in his emotional tone.

    “Otherwise, he maintains a remarkably even style in the ways he talks to his audiences,” Pennebaker said.

    However, there are striking differences between Obama and his predecessors, including:

    • Obama establishes less of a personal relationship with the audience than presidents George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, using fewer personal pronouns, positive and negative emotion words or references to other people. His emotional style is most comparable to Ronald Reagan’s.
    • His words are less positive or optimistic than any of his predecessors. That is, he uses far more words that convey sadness, anxiety or anger than optimism.
    • He eclipses John F. Kennedy as the most complex thinker of any of the presidents whose speeches were analyzed. Among other things, he uses large numbers of exclusive words — but, except, without, or — to make distinctions between what is and what is not included in the idea he is conveying.
    • His words suggest he is also the most dynamic thinker of the modern presidents, evaluating problems from a historical or developing perspective instead of by breaking them down into categories. This trait is marked by the heavy use of verbs. Other dynamic thinkers include presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

    Read Pennebaker’s full analysis on his blog.

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      Pennebaker says Obama’s speech suggests little optimism, emotional distance | in tune said on Sept. 1, 2010 at 11:30 p.m.
      [...] he maintains a remarkably even style in the ways he talks to his audiences,” Pennebaker says. Go to Pennebaker says Obama’s speech suggests little optimism, emotional distance → Published on Thursday, February 4, 2010 · Permalink Topics: emotional-intelligence, [...]
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      books on anxiety said on Aug. 18, 2010 at 10:23 p.m.
      There's no denying Obama is one seriously smart cat. It doesn't surprise me that the Mr. Pennebaker's software confirms this. Just watching him communicate conveys his intelligence to me. I think I disagree about forming personal relationships with his audience though - he may not use exact and measurable words, but he wins the trust of his listeners because he speaks so well. Shouldn't that count as building a "relationship"?
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      Harvey Sussman said on Feb. 8, 2010 at 12:28 p.m.
      How do you separate Obama's actual choice of words from those provided by speech writers?
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      John said on Feb. 6, 2010 at 3:10 p.m.
      Terry, I am also am intrigued by the assertion that President Obama uses fewer personal pronouns than his predecessors. The evidence seems to indicate the opposite. It appears that this study is not objective. Perhaps it is more advocacy than analysis.
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      carey webb said on Feb. 6, 2010 at 12:48 p.m.
      To Steve Cutchen: good point and I stand properly rebuked. to Terry: I had the same reaction to the use of personal pronouns...would like to see the Obama speech patterns analized to compare the use of "I" to other Presidents. Seems like a lot.
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      Steve Cutchen '78 said on Feb. 5, 2010 at 9:20 a.m.
      Of course, the comments are much less about the process of analyzing the speech and they style and much more about political blathering. Another example of bumper sticker advocacy. Come on, folks. You've got tons of places to post that. Stay on point. As to who wrote speeches, I think that is a good point. My guess on listening was that Obama wrote the opening and closing sections at least. He is an author. And I believe I read that he wrote a lot of his stump speeches. I would also like to see these speeches compared to some of the classic civil rights speeches of the 60s. Obama seemed to use this pulpit style, with the emotional buildup and repetition.
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      Terry said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 11:21 p.m.
      Good conversation. I am intrigued by the conclusion that the current President uses fewer personal pronouns than his predecessors. I don't have a program to analyze it, but he seems to use the word "I" more than any other President in memory. Not scientific, mind you, but an observation.
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      John said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 7:33 p.m.
      Paul, the reason there were "huge" deficits (a joke by today's standards), when Reagan left office was because of huge government spending. This is what Reagan campaigned against his entire presidency. I just wish he would have used his veto pen more often. I have to admit that he went along with the tax reform act of 1986 which was a disaster that led to the Savings and Loan debacle. Listen, folks lowering taxes does not raise the deficit. Raising taxes does not decrease the deficit. The ONLY way to decrease the deficit is to cut spending. Read Art Laffer or Thomas Sowell. Or Milton Friedmann for crying out loud!
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      John said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 7:25 p.m.
      Herman, when you lower the marginal tax rate from 70% on the highest income earners to 28%, I call that a tax cut. The point of all this is that the Progressives since Woodrow Wilson have been moving this country closer and closer to more government involvement in every aspect of our lives. The goal has always been wealth redistribution and increasing government regulation of business. The country is beginning to wake up. We are no longer going to stand for this government encroachment into our lives.
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      Carey Webb said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 6:00 p.m.
      TO Herman and Paul: Reagans ERTA in 1981 cut tax rates across the board by 25% and the top marginal rate from 70% to 35%. The deficits under Reagan are also attributed in some part, depending on ones point of view, to a Democrat controlled congress. In the 27 years between Reagan taking office and its all time high, the DOW cilmbed by 1400%. Clinton's presidency was the beneficiary of the unprecedented growth Reagan set in motion, a Republican controlled congress and the dot com bubble, which, incidentally, when it burst left Bush the Jr with a bit of a mess when he was sworn in as well. Obama seems to be a brillaint law professor, great orator and idealogue but with neither the experience nor instincts for governing. Hope I am wrong but his first year and tone set in the SOTU appears to have us headed for catastrophe.
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      Cynthia said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 5:41 p.m.
      I'm with Anne. Reagan left the country with huge deficits. Bush the Younger did the same thing. Obama has little to work with and he's doing a good enough job within such parameters. Give him time.
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      Anne said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 5:21 p.m.
      Too many right-wing comments here. It is a pleasure to have a President that is a complex thinker; an intelligent President. So much better than the simplistic, poorly thought out ideas and actions we have been subjected to for so many years. Let the experts analyze, sit back and let President Obama act and, maybe, open your mind a little bit.
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      Bob said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 4:46 p.m.
      Elane and Martha - exactly what I was thinking! We know they all have speechwriters. How does that enter into the evaluation. I guess you could say that since they all had writers, it balances out?
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      Curtis E. Granberry said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 1:28 p.m.
      I am reminded of the conversations between our President and the members of the Republican Caucus - our President asked one of the questioners, in effect, if there was a question somewhere in his campaign speech. It seems to me that Martha Williams was the only comment that addressed the science discussed by Prof. Pennebaker. I wonder if any of the Presidents included in the study gave State of the Union addresses that the President did not agree with wholehardily. I recall that at least Predidents Kennedy and Reagan had speech writers of noted distinction, but I have little doubt that these two Presidnts spoke words that they had not spent lots of time discussing and agreeing with the content. P.S., I still consider getting my "mail" at my postoffice.
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      Elane Neu Scott said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 12:26 p.m.
      I think Martha Williams has made an important observation about the value of questioning who actually wrote President Obama's remarks.
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      Richard Smith said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 12:46 p.m.
      Professor, it is not hard to know for whom you voted in '08. Perhaps your extraordinarily biased comments, you said he seemed more anxious and anger than his predecessors. Could this be that he told flat out lies during his address (i.e. his scolding of the Supreme Court). He was also anxious as he could not address the multiple failures of a slam dunk control of congress... not health, not immigration, not terrorism, no transparency as promised..... just a bunch of lies. He should be anxious. The voters have turned away from him as they learn more and more about his total weakness in running a country since he has never managed anything in his life.
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      Martha Williams said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 11:31 a.m.
      Very interesting, but how do you know who actually wrote the text? What if he speaks the words and they were written by others? Does this make any difference?
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      Trevor said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 10:28 a.m.
      I've also heard that Ms. Palin forms personal ties in her speeches. Still, I'd rather have "the most complex thinker of any of the presidents whose speeches were analyzed" as my president. It's good that President Bush (43) was able to get some people to snicker, but I prefer actual intellect... and it doesn't surprise me in the least that it takes more than a few months to get us out of the GOP's nosedive. Nor does it surprise me that many conservatives are eager to forget who put us in that nosedive.
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      Lorin said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 10:09 a.m.
      I echo Herman's sentiments about John's counterfactual comments. Much of the quick economic boom was because Carter left with the country headed in the right direction despite inflated oil prices. When oil prices came down, the economy recovered. It had nothing to do with Reagan. I also wonder abuot the ethics of conducting a low-reliability "personality" assessment without the subject's consent. As a psychologist and psychometrician, I would NEVER publish such low validity findings in a public forum. These findings, as noted by others, totally ignore the impact of situational constraints and was conducted over a very short time span. Never before has a President encountered this kind of fiscal crisis combined with a totally uncooperative opposition party. If the University cares to publicize quality research, they should focus on work that compares apples to apples. This bufoonery is an embarrassment to the field of psychology and the the University.
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      Paul said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 9:51 a.m.
      President Reagan left the country with huge deficits. That's why his successor, George H.W. Bush had to renege on his "read my lips, no new taxes" promise." President Clinton finally was able to bring in a balanced budget, and actually leave office with a surplus. The next President cut taxes and kept spending money, again leaving us with a huge deficit. It is a misnomer to consider the Republican Party any more a party of fiscal restraint than the Democrats. The current President was handed a fiscal mess, and appears to me to willing to face it head on, and deal with it. Instead of this incessant grabs for power, it seems to me it would be good for the country to try to work with him.
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      Herman said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 9:26 a.m.
      John you had to go to the Republican myth that Reagan cut taxes. In fact he has the distinction of the largest tax increase by any president (look it up). Also he called them revenue enhancers, not taxes. Read Stockman's book The Triumph of Politics for just how little got done.
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      Gary said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 9:14 a.m.
      President Obama is making even more of a mess (of the economy, the budget, the deficit, etc.) while trying to clean up the mess he was left that Brian refers to. The lack of bipartisanship is really no excuse as the President's party has complete control of both the Congress and the Senate and will only lose their super majority in the senate once Senator Elect Brown from Massachussets is seated (which is taking an extraodinarily long time by the way). The Democrats have just been ineffective in getting their legislation passed because they can't agree amongst themselves, thank God. The last thing this country needs is government run healthcare ("all the efficiency of the DMV with all the compassion of the IRS") or Cap and Trade, especially while our whole economy is going down the drain. There are many promises that President Obama made on the campaign trail that have already been broken that have nothing to do with how long he has been in office...the Health Care Debate being televised on C-Span for example. Instead, he held closed door meetings with Democrats's that for bipartisanship (another broken promise, I think). Anyway, President Obama is a smart guy, I have faith that he will figure things out and I HOPE he will CHANGE his course in order to put our country back on the right track.
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      stan bower said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 8:54 a.m.
      James, I have never met the President, but we all make observations. Your model is interesting. In my opinion, Obama's values all come from his world view. His convictions or values come from his religious, cultural, educational and age. His convictions dictate his behavior and his 'talk'. I believe using your test observations that is he shut down emotionally or "stuck' as I call it. We all are at certain levels. His history is directing his political, socialistic and economical decision making. Time will tell no matter my personal opinion... Stan
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      Mike said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 8:33 a.m.
      Our last president had the arrogance to think he was right, and then he acted on it; he didn't try to sell his position, he just acted on it. This president campaigned on "Hope & Change" and he is not optimistic. This president was in Congress when the current financial situation was set up and owes his allegiance to the party that is directly responsible for the failures in Fanni Mae & Freddi Mac; rather than find a solution to the financial crisis that works, this president blames the previous administration. This president has the arrogance to sell his positions without actually acting on them. Obama has not failed because he is not finished, but he isn't making progress; since he does not appear to be trying to make progress, it is not unreasonable to predict failure, but he hasn't failed yet.
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      John Brooks said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 8:32 a.m.
      There is a tremendous contrast between President Obama and Ronald Reagan. While both inherited a "mess", their responses were diametrically opposed. Both could blame their circumstances on previous administrations. Reagan chose to cut taxes and reduce the regulatory stranglehold the federal government had on business. The result was an almost immediate increase in employment. The economy boomed and continued to grow right through the Clinton Administration into the second Bush Administration. Barrack Obama is at the same point in history as Ronald Reagan. However, his response is to raise taxes and increase government regulation. This is driving the economy into the ground. If we keep this course we could face financial collapse.
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      Bruce said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 8:27 a.m.
      Interesting analysis. I wonder if SotU addresses evolve over time (was Truman's first SotU address comparable to his last? Bush's last?), and I wonder if a similar study could evaluate facial cues and body language.
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      Shelly said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 8:00 a.m.
      JoAnn and Chris, I believe that it is too early to tell whether or not the President has failed. It has only been a year. No president has come into office with the extraordinary issues he's had to deal with so we cannot judge using previous presidents. Nobody wants to spend trillions but many economists have agreed with this. Without all the spending, it is clear that many small business owners would have nothing to complain about because they would all be out of business.
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      Jim said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 6:10 a.m.
      Hello Folks, I am a mid-size business owner/employer and I will not hire or replace workers until Obama, Pelosi and Reid are out of office because of their policies or lack thereof. You can say what you want about how they are conveyed but the reality is this administration and the super majority in congress could have fixed ANY problem they wanted to fix. They have not fixed anything. As an employer all this tells me is that the promises, policies and goals this group communicates are a threat to my business because of their uncertainty. I do not need anyone telling me when to hire, who to hire, compensation, benefits or anything else. I have almost zero turnover because without government interference the employee-employer relationship is unencumbered by artificial and unpredictable incentives from the government. They are spending too much time and our money on the blame game. If any of them had any business experience at all they would understand the simple equation of GDP and assumptions of GDP growth. Leaders should establish stable and realistic policies that can be rapidly implemented by congress. Jobs equal spending equal growth. All of these moon shots on health care, cap and trade, bank reform, automobile bailouts and salary controls communicate risk. As long as the business environment is risky businesses will require higher returns to hire new employees. I don't see and I do not hear anything that will change that any time soon.
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      Virginia said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 6:05 a.m.
      Does this analysis take speechwriting into account?
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      Mary said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 12:37 a.m.
      "Obama has been left with a real mess to clean up". Let's remember recent history: Obama VOTED for the problems we have now as he was a senator (for 120+/-days) before being elected. Don't forget that the democrats took over Congress in '07 and immediately started talking down the economy so much until a bad economy became a reality - especially after they started spending like there was no tomorrow. Obama may have had a few financial challenges when he took over, but that gave him no good reason to quadruple the deficit and debt. Had he shut down spending, not done TARP, Omnibus, Spendulus and all of the other fiascoes, acted fiscally responsible, we wouldn't be in the crisis we're in now, headed for complete disaster.
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      Steve said on Feb. 4, 2010 at 12:06 a.m. Look at the Obama-meter. Kept more promises than any other of the recent presidents since FDR.
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      Jack said on Feb. 3, 2010 at 10:42 a.m.
      Can we all admit these are not his words, but those of speechwriters?
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      Carol said on Feb. 2, 2010 at 12:09 p.m.
      I think its premature to say he's failed, he did inherit many messes, not all of them the Bush administrations (but most of the dramatic ones.) Some messes, such as the financial culture of wall street, the blinders on in the auto industry, etc. etc. have been ripening much longer than 10 years. I think his direct non-sugar coated speech and thoughtfulness is refreshing, and if he could get assistance from congress, he could bring about some positive changes.
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      John said on Feb. 1, 2010 at 10:35 a.m.
      Isn't it telling when we have to have PhD Psychologists help us understand this guy. Just turn the sound down and watch what he does. Borrowing money, printing money, reducing the options for competitive market based solutions that employ people and provide funding for all aspects of society, stressing the economy to the point that there is no prudent reserve for the unexpected occurrences that will inevitably arise. Is the hair standing up on the back of your neck yet? It should be.
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      Josh Griffin said on Jan. 31, 2010 at 1:40 p.m.
      Those that go to the pole to vote for a perfect candidate are always going to be let down. He has not fulfilled every promise but he is the guy in the position that continues to fight for the American people by continuing to take action on matters that concern the majority of the whole. Too bad he faces a stonewall from the Republicans on nearly every issue. His "tone" is real and we need that rather than false hope and scare tactics right now. He gave an excellent speech.
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      Chris said on Jan. 31, 2010 at 12:09 a.m.
      Hello JoAnn, I must agree that he has failed on many of his promises. But more importantly, he simply blamed the previous administration for everything. Could the American people (especially younger ones) please open their minds and actually look at what's going on? Take the time to realize that spending trillions and unlimited taxation is not the answer. I know many small business owners that would disagree with what he said. He has hurt way more businesses than helped. And his new plan to cut spending saves only 2 percent of the trillions he will spend. How's is that saving? I wish people could realize that many of his promises have and never will be kept.
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      Brian said on Jan. 30, 2010 at 2:29 p.m.
      I couldn't agree more with Josh. Obama has been left with a real mess to clean up and this takes time. He can only tackle a certain amount of issues at once. If you say he has already failed I sense that you are biased in your opinion to Mr. Obama because he still has quite some time to work with. In addition, people expect President Obama to come into office and fix all of our nations problems and with such high hopes, are let down when these problems aren't fixed immediatly. It took quite some time for these problems to cumculate and it will take quite some time to fix, especially with congresses lack of bipartisanship.
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      JoAnn said on Jan. 29, 2010 at 4:06 p.m.
      Hey Josh I don't know how up to date you are with politics and where you have been, but Obama had always talked about real issues, unfortunately, more importantly, it was needless to say gibberish and just talk. The American people are now seeing how he failed and is failing on all his promises and changes he "talked" about.
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      Josh Griffin said on Jan. 29, 2010 at 9:32 a.m.
      One could say that he is less positive in his tone, but it is easy to see straight through false optimism. I find it refreshing to hear our president talk about real issues that Americans are struggling with and then how we can resolve our problems. Just because he doesn't lie to our face with a smile on his, does not mean he has a negative tone. What a compliment to Obama that people are analyzing his every word to find some deeper definition then what is. In the years before, all there was to do was try to piece together gibberish.
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