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If history is any guide, one thing you will hear during President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday night is the word 'will'. By all accounts it is Obama's word of choice. During the past four State of the Unions he used it a whopping 263 times.
Obama isn't alone. Both of his predecessors also favored 'will.' It tops the list of the most often used words during all of George W. Bush's State of the Union addresses and four of Bill Clinton's addresses.
Why is this word so widely and increasingly used in modern State of the Union speeches?
As originally conceived in Article III, section 2 of the Constitution this is a chance for the president to give Congress "information [on] the State of the Union and recommend... measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." Based on this we might expect presidents to use terms like 'advocate,' 'advise,' 'suggest,' or 'urge'. Yet neither these terms nor their equivalents seem to make the list these days.
Instead of providing information or making recommendations, modern presidents use the speech to prognosticate and promise. And they don't restrict their promises to what they will do (as in what 'I or my administration will do').
They also seem quite comfortable forecasting what others will do, what others believe will occur, what the country itself will do, and what will happen.
Consider the following examples from Obama's last State of the Union:
* "Soon, there will be millions of new customers for American.... soon, there will be new cars on the streets of Seoul imported from Detroit" (what will happen)
* "Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade" (what others believe will happen)
* "Your country will do everything we can to help you succeed" (what the country will do)
These are just a few of the many examples we have to draw on. In his 2009 speech Obama used "will" a record 87 times (this was not technically a State of the Union, but an address to a Joint session of Congress). During his next three State of the Union speeches he followed suit, using "will" more often than any other word: 61 times in 2010, 58 in 2011, and 57 in 2012.
From 2009-2012 the word "will" has consistently dwarfed its closest competitors (American, people, new, us, and even jobs). While each of these words was uttered numerous times, they generally got half as many mentions as will. Consider Obama's 2009 speech. "American" was the second most frequently used word, but at 26 mentions it paled in comparison to "will" at 87. Similarly, in 2010 and 2011 the second most used words (people at 33 and new at 36) ranked well behind "will" at 61 and 58 mentions respectively.
Even more surprising is the fact that some words we might expect to hear haven't even cracked the top 10. For instance, "economy" only made Obama's top 10 once. Nevertheless, it did better than other terms you might expect to hear, including terrorism, security, Usama bin Laden, education, compromise, united, budget, deficit, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, environment, and taxes -- none of which even made the list during Obama's first term.
Top 5 words used during President Obama's State of the Union addresses: 2009-2012
1. "will" - 87
2. "American" - 26
3. "know" - 25
4. "now" - 24
5. "because" - 23
1. "will" - 61
2. "people" - 33
3. "year" - 30
4. "now" - 30
5. "Americans" - 28
1. "will" - 58
2. "new" - 36
3. "us" - 33
4. "people" - 33
5. "America" - 26
1. "will" - 57
2. "American" - 35
3. "jobs" - 34
4. "America" - 33
5. "new" - 27
While former President George W. Bush used "will" during his State of the Union speeches on average less often than Obama, he still used it more than any other term including some of his other favorites: budget, America, people, security, and us.
Likewise, President Clinton also favored "will." During his last three State of the Union speeches he, too, used it more often than any other term. Unlike his successors, however, there were four years when "will" didn't reach the top spot and one year when it didn't even make the top 10. In fact, Clinton's 1996 address stands alone as the only State of the Union speech in the last twenty years not to feature "will" in the top 10.
The frequent use of this word suggests modern presidents increasingly see the State of the Union as a chance to prophesy, predict, and promise. This may seem to be a curious development given that in the 21st century the proliferation of media has made it much easier to track a president's every word (as this article shows).
You might think that in this type of hyper-media environment presidents would be even more circumspect and cautious, yet the opposite has occurred. Presidents seem more willing to make promises and engage in this type of rhetoric. Perhaps this is because they sense the public has a short memory so that even if they are wrong, no one will remember. Or perhaps it's because even if they are publicly held accountable for overpromising or miscalculating, in our system of separated powers and divided government, they can easily "blame the other guy."
Whatever the reason, it is a dangerous game. People increasingly tune out or just plain turn off the State of Union, just as they do so many other political speeches, because they know instinctively what this data shows -- far from informing and/or recommending, politicians are promising and predicting even when there is no assurance they can deliver. It is a recipe for disaster -- increasing feelings of inefficacy among voters and decreasing faith in public officials at a time when we need it most.
Instead of presenting himself as prophet-in-chief, telling us what "will" happen and providing a laundry list of promises, President Obama would be wise to return to the intention of the Framers and focus his address instead on informing and recommending solutions to America's problems.