Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Monday, May 07, 2007

Presidential tag clouds: parsing the word salad

You have to pan the stream of blogging about blogging with an eye peeled for the real nuggets -- most of what glitters in the silt turns out to be fool's gold. Marc Cooper blogs about blogging rarely, but does it exceptionally well. In a recent entry, he turned up, immediately hooking me. I was most drawn to its discussion of tag cloud analysis on the speeches of presidential candidates. Brute-force broad-brush text analysis holds little technological fascination for me, since it's as much a source of unintended comedy as illumination. I say: do text analysis either with simple tools, or -- until the day when true Natural Language Understanding arrives -- not at all. Tag clouds (and text clouds) may fit the bill.

In the tag clouds found for Dem candidates at, Obama has the highest total wordcount for statistical purposes, and one of the least issue-specific clouds. Cf. Biden, all over the map on sometimes-obscure issues. Floating around in Obama's mix, you struggle for specificity -- hardly a “frame” in sight. Does “around” connote some political charge these days? Am I missing the dog-whistle note in “going”? Can we be sure that when he says “sure” (as he apparently does quite often) he’s really sure? He uses the word “families” quite frequently, as Bill Clinton did, and as Dubya did until 9/11. (Guess what the big word is *after* 9/11. Hint: it starts with a “t”.) Apart from that -- an apparent nullity from a not-insubstantial speaker. What gives?

Yes, Obama says real things. Obama wonks a lot, a whole lot, but on a lot of different topics, thus cancelling out any particular topic in his tag clouds. Of course, if you go his site, you can see videos of him winning the popularity contest handily. These clips won’t strain your powers of attention, and will only vaguely direct you to one issue focus or another. But you can also find long speeches in which topics like putting the world’s nuclear enrichment programs under an umbrella organization is just one of three parts. He can talk for 20 minutes about nuclear terrorism prevention, seriously wonky stuff, rather than about going mano-a-mano with terrorists, the stuff of sound bites. "Uranium" won’t pop out in his tag clouds because he goes at the problem from an “ounce of prevention” angle, while talking about a lot of other ounces, all over the political map.

In a way almost blatantly at odds with his ostensible strategy of direct popular conversation, Obama’s real audience for all this verbiage looks like the specialized political classes — evangelical leaders on the Dem side of the spectrum, high-level federal bureaucrats, business leaders, opinion-makers on specific policy issues. In these speeches, he greets initial applause with a slightly dour machine-gun spray of “thank you, thank you, thank you”, and almost winces when scattered clapping erupts in mid-sentence. The message in that, clearly: “Shut the fuck up, because what I’m going to say here is about stuff that matters to YOU, the serious student of policy, regardless of how you feel about ME. I’ve got a lot of material to cover. So don’t waste my time.” He subdues his audience every time: Yes, Professor Obama: we're listening. He gives these special audiences a heads-up on what an Obama presidency is going to mean to them in career terms.

Under the apparent vagueness suggested by Obama's tag cloud, you can see what I regard as truly brilliant strategy: for now, let the other candidates hammer away on getting the votes that he can get almost effortlessly with a smile and a wave, with his faintly Lincolnesque persona in formal speeches to open crowds, with his faintly (Bill) Clintonesque persona in the more informal settings. For now -- it's still early -- he concentrates on building up expectations among the people whose work he'll directly affect, day-to-day, if he reaches the Oval Office. The audience is not even particularly partisan. These two terms of Dubya will leave quite a few GOP political appointees in office after 2008, and they will greatly appreciate knowing where Obama is coming from, in various policy arenas.

Cf. Hillary. Hillary has gotten really big on saying “president”. President, president, president — she just loves to say “president”. She doesn’t need to provide detailed career-navigation clues to the political classes, because they already know that her administration will be Billary: The Sequel. The likely collocations: "This president" (note the subtle hiss), and "As president" (softly pointing "Me, me, me: the first woman president. Start believing now, so that by the time you get to the polls, you'll feel like you're re-electing me.")

Edwards is #2 in the upstart-popularity sweepstakes with Obama. When you're #2, you try harder. For him, for now, it's all about votes from the gut, and he knows it. He even has helpful Lakovian Framing happening by accident in his tag cloud, in alphabetical order, stuff you’d have to pay cubic dollars to political consultants to figure out, after they got that nattering George Lakoff guy out of the room:

America - believe
health - important
president - question
states - united

Of course, those happy accidents are almost certainly helped along by cubic money paid to political consultants.

For you history buffs out there, Chirag Mehta's US Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud page is great fun. The biggest word in the presidential terms leading up to the Civil War? “Constitution”. If that one starts popping out again in future presidential-speech tag clouds, you might consider gradually liquidating your assets and moving the cash to off-shore accounts.


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