The words President Obama uses in his weekly addresses give a snapshot of his priorities and offer an ideal tool for cutting through the relentless spin of right-wing media.
With aggressive moves to revive the economy coming from the White House almost daily, journalists are starting to wonder which economic indicator the Obama administration watches to gauge the success of the recovery. One way to answer the question is to look closer at the words Obama has used to talks about the economic crisis.
Jonathan Feinberg's Wordle.net system offers an innovative way to see which terms Obama has emphasized in his prepared speeches. Wordle takes a piece of text and transforms it into a "word cloud": a list of the words presented larger or smaller relative to how many times each is used.
Trying out Wordle a few times on other speeches, my hunch was that the system could be used to bring into focus those aspects of the economy that Obama was emphasizing when he spoke about the crisis in his weekly addresses, which have mostly been about the economy up to this point.
Obama's February 7 weekly address, for example, produced this Wordle image:
What we see, here, is a picture of how President Obama talked to the nation about the economy on February 7, 2009. During this time period, the broadcast and print media was obsessing over the idea of 'bipartisanship.' This image reveals, however, that President Obama was emphasizing jobs.
If we return to the first weekly address Obama delivered January 24, we get a different picture of how the new President first spoke to the country about economic recovery, along with a different keyword as emphasis:
Here, we see the very first economic concept Obama emphasized was energy and, to a lesser extent, health care. Interestingly, whereas the February 7 address emphasized infrastructure (notice the words 'levees' and 'crumbling' in the first image), Obama's January 24 address put more emphasis 'students' and 'college.' Both addresses emphasized 'work.'
These images are not revealing startling information so much as they are clarifying what gets lost when Obama's words are swept up in Republican PR and media noise. Simply put: When Obama unrolled the economic debate to the general public, he emphasized energy, health care, and education as key areas of government investment. As he pushed harder to pass the bill in Congress, he brought in a new emphasis on infrastructure projects, appealing more directly to representatives with the ailing finances and rising unemployment of their constituents in mind.
In the moment after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed, Obama repeated the word 'work' over and over again, stating clearly that his main focus for economic recovery was doing the work that needed to be done. He also emphasized that the impact of this work would take time--time and work.
Emphasis in last week's address on work and time suggests a fairly safe conclusion that unemployment is the main indicator that the Obama administration is watching to see if their plan is working. This is not to say that they are ignoring the stock market indexes. Anybody with a pulse has noticed the sinking Dow Jones Industrial Index. Most Americans have watched their retirement portfolio's cut in half if not more. But the White House is watching the stock market, Obama's words suggest, in the context of employment figures. Even if the stock market goes up, they will not see that as a success unless the unemployment rate starts to subside. In fact, that is a good way for the White House to look at indicators because stock prices may rise and fall with various news items, but the overall value of the markets can only rise when employment stabilizes and then strengthens.
If I had to predict which words the Obama weekly address will emphasize this week, I would say 'foreclosure' and 'spread,' picking up on the idea that economic stability can only happen if the default rate on middle class home owners declines. Mortgage default rates, in other words, are the next indicator the Obama administration is watching after unemployment.
For journalists accustomed to simply looking at the market scroll on cable news as the leading indicator of economic health, the new emphasis of the Obama team may seem odd. But for the rest of America, it is a welcome change. After 8 years of talking about economic health in terms of nothing but 'markets,' the Obama administration has bringing a new language and a new focus to the debate.
It is a focus we can hear and see, if only we pay attention.