Providence | 9.30.16
By Alan Dowd
Amidst the post-debate spinning and scoring, precious little
has been discussed about what Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton said—and didn’t
say—in round one. But to his credit, one observer noticedthat “The word ‘freedom’ was spoken precisely zero times during the debate.” That
seems hard to believe in this “land of the free.” So I checked for myself, and
sure enough, “freedom” was nowhere to be found in the debate transcript.
The closest either candidate came was Clinton’s promise of “debt-free college.”
The candidates’ silence on the significance of freedom—at home and
To be sure, words are never more important than actions.
Scripture, after all, calls on us to be doersand not just talkers. Jesus shared a parableabout two sons—one who said he would work in the vineyard but didn’t, and one who
said he wouldn’t but did—to underscore the vast difference between saying
something and actually doing something.
What’s true of individuals, in this instance, is true of
nations, especially great powers like the United States: Actions speak louder
But words matter, especially a president’s words. Using
language to steer the nation is part of a president’s job. The American
presidency, after all, is “the bully pulpit.” President Theodore Roosevelt coinedthe term to underscore the rhetorical power a president can wield. TR
understood well that a president’s words provide form and focus to his
policies, rally or deflate the American people, reflect the national mood,
reassure or worry America’s friends, and send signals to America’s foes. This
sometimes-overlooked truth is especially relevant as we digest the words
Clinton and Trump ladle out in the debates.
What’s telling is that the absence of the word “freedom”
from the first Clinton-Trump debate is very much in line with the declining use
of the word in presidential State of the Union (SOU) addresses, as illustrated
by an interesting statistical compilationthat dates back to 1934.
The compilation not surprisingly reveals that President Ronald
Reagan’s use of “freedom” is the highest of all the surveyed SOU addresses,
followed closely by President George W. Bush. In addition, President Franklin
Roosevelt, President Dwight Eisenhower, President John Kennedy and President
George H.W. Bush often employed “freedom” in their SOUs.
President Barack Obama’s use of the word is dramatically
lower, especially when juxtaposed with Bush 43. Obama used “freedom” just once
in his 2014 SOU, once in his 2015 SOU and twice in his 2016
SOU. Importantly, neither was related to the spread of freedom around the
world. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the world has seen an ebbing of free
government in recent years.
Given that SOU speeches and debate sound-bites are
poll-tested and focus-grouped, this trend says something about America in
2016—and how much the country has changed in recent decades. Indeed, if words
mean anything, the SOU stats tell us a lot about a changing America.
For instance, there has been a steady decline in use of the
word “united” since FDR, perhaps reflecting the American people growing less
united as we move further away from the unifying task of World War II.
To be fair, keeping the United States united has always been
a challenge. From the very beginning, the American people have valued the
individual and exalted individualism. After all, this is where the “Don’t Tread
on Me” flag once waved—and still waves in some places. As opposed to the rugged
individualism of the frontier, nowadays there is a demand for rights, a sense
of entitlement, a scramble to claim, a dissection of the nation into
ever-smaller interest groups and voting blocs. And so, it seems there is more
dividing us than uniting us.
Yet we are supposed to be one people. Our constitution,
after all, begins with “We, the people”—not “I, the individual.” And our
national motto is E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one.” If that phrase ceases to
have meaning to Americans, this young century will not be another American
Related, use of the word “nation”—a word FDR often employed
in his wartime SOU addresses—has seen a steady decline since the Nixon era.
Obama registers some of the lowest uses of the word. Perhaps the disappearance
of this word from SOU addresses is a function of fewer and fewer Americans
viewing themselves as connected to their nation. This stands to reason, as post-nationalism
and globalization erode the importance of the nation in daily life.
Globalization allows—encouraged us—us to consider ourselves
“citizens of the world.” But when China builds artificial islands in
international waters, Russia annexes Crimea, ISIS tears through Paris, al Qaeda
maims Manhattan, pandemics threaten the world, pirates prey on international
shipping, mass-murderers try to exterminate their enemies and tsunamis swallow
cities, the victims don’t turn to multinational corporations or supranational
NGOs for help. They turn to the most powerful nation-state. Critics of the
United States may refuse to recognize America’s special role. But by turning to
America for help when bad things happen, they are tacitly conceding that
America is, well, special.
Conditioned to view patriotic sentiment as politically
incorrect or old-fashioned, many Americans dismiss American exceptionalism or
apologize for it. But no matter what Hollywood sells us, no matter what
colleges teach us, not matter what the press tells us, this nation is special.
Name another nation where an Afghan immigrant becomes its UN ambassador, where
a refugee from Czechoslovakia becomes its secretary of state, where a Taiwanese
or Cuban immigrant becomes a cabinet official, where a kid begins
life as a Soviet refugee, survives the Nazis, flees the Red Army and becomes
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“We’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion
but what’s important,” Reagan said, warning that “an eradication of the
American memory” could lead to “an erosion of the American spirit.” A
quarter-century later—as schools teach about the fads of the present rather
than the enduring truths of the past, as parts of the nation balkanize into
ethno-national shards, as political leaders struggle to grasp American
exceptionalism—we know Reagan’s prognosis was accurate.
Bush 43 and FDR, both wartime presidents, used the term
“victory” far more often than their peers. Obama has used it only once in his
SOUs—and not in reference to the war on terrorism. Not coincidentally, Bush 43 and FDR spoke of
the “enemy” and “enemies” far more than did other presidents. Indeed, it’s
striking that in an age of terrorism, with U.S. troops waging pitched battles
against terrorist groups around the world, the word “terrorism” was virtually
absent from Obama's SOU addresses in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, and was used
sparingly in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. (He used “terrorism/terrorist” just
seven times in his 6,137-word 2016 SOU.)
Of course, Obama’s words unspoken merely reflect the mood of
the American people. Fifty-six percent of Americans say counterterror operations
in Afghanistan are not worth the costs; 74 percent say the U.S. should focus on
problems here at home.
Since 1980, Bush 41 and Bush 43 talked about the “world”
more than other presidents, though not as much as President Jimmy Carter,
Truman or FDR. Truman talked about the “world” more than any president
The attacks of 9/11 and America’s consequent overseas
engagements explain the younger Bush’s use of “world.” The fall of the Berlin
Wall, collapse of the USSR and Gulf War explain the elder Bush’s. What’s more
puzzling is the relative absence of the word from Obama’s SOU addresses. As
referenced above, this is probably a function of the world-weariness of the
American people, which Obama tapped into as candidate and commander-in-chief.
Related, there has been a virtual disappearance of the word
“alliance” from SOU addresses. Eisenhower, President Lyndon Johnson and both
Bushes used the word a little, President John Kennedy a lot. But most of the
others used it seldom, if ever. Obama rarely spoke of allies in his SOUs, until
2015 and 2016.
Again, this is a reflection of the national mood. Fifty-two
percent of Americans say the United States “should mind its own business
internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their
own”—up from 30 percent in 2002 and 20 percent in 1964.
Trump drew heavy criticism for suggesting he would come to
the defense of NATO allies under attack—an ironclad requirement of the North
Atlantic Treaty—only if they had “fulfilled their obligations to us.” Such a
suggestion deserved every bit of criticism it received. Yet it pays to recall
that this chill wind in America’s approach to allies began blowing during the
Obama administration. It was the Obama administration that offloaded Guantanamo
detainees onto the British colony of Bermuda, without consulting Britain. It
was the Obama administration that put a time limit on America’s commitment to
NATO in Libya. It was the Obama administration that left Poland and the Czech
Republic out on a limb by unilaterally reversing NATO’s missile-defense plans.
It was the Obama administration that invoiced Paris after the French military
requested help in Mali. It was the Obama administration’s disengagement from
the Middle East—the withdrawal from Iraq, the hands-off approach to Syria, the
erased “red line”—that alarmed allies in Europe, Israel, Turkey and Jordan. It
was the Obama administration that employed phrases like “nation-building here
at home” and “leading from behind” to encourage America’s turn inward.
Like a pendulum, U.S. foreign policy was bound to swing back
from the hyperactivity of the immediate post-9/11 era. However, it seems Obama
allowed the pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction. Along the way,
he failed to tend to America’s alliance system. It will be left to Clinton or
Trump to rebuild the trust of old friends, while reminding the American
people about the benefits of, and need for, alliances.