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Republicans might not have heard much to cheer about in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, but a former GOP speechwriter almost felt flattered.
Marc Thiessen was the lead writer for President George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union speech, and he said he found the similarities between the two speeches a bit eerie.
"There were lines like, ‘Our job is to help Americans build a future of hope and opportunity," Thiessen told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. "‘A future of hope and opportunity requires that all citizens have affordable and available health care, extending opportunity and hope depends on a stable supply of energy.’ All of that came from the 2007 State of the Union from George W. Bush.
"So Barack Obama has gone from blaming George W. Bush to plagiarizing George W. Bush," Thiessen concluded.
Plagiarism -- which is to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own words or ideas -- is a fairly serious charge, so we decided to look at the substance behind it.
We contacted Thiessen, and he said we should look at his statement in context.
"Did Obama copy Bush word-for-word? No," Thiessen told us. "But Obama clearly lifted the repeating theme of his address from Bush's 2007 State of the Union. In Obama's case, it's significant because he is abandoning a liberal theme that was not working (income inequality) in favor of a conservative theme that does (opportunity)."
Thiessen said this wasn’t the first time he felt Obama borrowed heavily from Bush. He said it happened before in an Obama speech on Syria.
In this case, Thiessen does well to back away from the zinger he delivered on television. Jonathan Bailey runs a consulting operation and website called Plagiarism Today. Bailey told us Obama’s speech didn’t have what Bailey would call plagiarism.
"It doesn’t appear that any lines were lifted verbatim, or even very close to verbatim," Bailey said.
First, Obama never said, "Our job is to help Americans build a future of hope and opportunity," or, "A future of hope and opportunity requires that all citizens have affordable and available health care, extending opportunity and hope depends on a stable supply of energy."
So Thiessen is wrong on that point.
Even in more isolated contexts, an accusation of plagiarism appears unjustified.
On Fox News, Thiessen mentioned the phrases "hope and opportunity" or "opportunity and hope." In 2007, Bush used those phrases seven times. Obama never used either of them.
In fact, Obama -- who ran his 2008 campaign on a slogan of "hope" -- didn’t use that word at all.
Bush talked about affordable health care twice. Obama never used that term except when he referred to the Affordable Care Act. (Not that the mention of affordable health care should be considered plagiarism.)
Bush spoke of "energy" three times; Obama eight.
Both presidents also used the word opportunity -- Obama 12 times, Bush nine. The idea of opportunity belongs to both political parties, but it’s a word more typically used by Republicans, both Thiessen and Bailey said.
"Much of the language in Obama’s speech took a more conservative tone, using words and terminology commonly associated with Republicans," Bailey said.
That said, not everyone agrees that Obama took much of a conservative turn in his speech. According to an analysis from political scientists Benjamin Lauderdale at the London School of Economics and John Sides at George Washington University, Obama’s tone was not much different than it had been in previous years.
For fun, we used the website Wordle to generate diagrams showing how many times the two presidents used certain words in their speeches. The similarities and differences are fairly obvious. In 2007, war and terrorism were more pressing than work and jobs are in 2014. In the scheme of things, both presidents invoked "opportunity" about the same number of times.
Most common words in President George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address
Most common words in President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address
Thiessen said that Obama had gone from blaming George W. Bush to plagiarizing him. Thiessen himself says he didn’t mean that Obama copied Bush; rather, that Obama took the theme of opportunity from Bush.
Even if Obama did emphasize a theme Republicans identify with, that in no way matches the popular, or legal, understanding of plagiarism. At PunditFact, we understand that words can be delivered for effect, but we also uphold the principle that words matter.
We rate this claim False.
Fox News, The Kelly File, Jan. 28, 2014
White House Archives, President Bush delivers State of the Union, Jan. 23, 2007
Washington Post, Full text of Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address, Jan. 28. 2014
Mediaite, Former GOP Speechwriter Accuses Obama of ‘Plagiarizing’ Bush in State of the Union, Jan. 29, 2014
Politico, Bush speechwriter: Obama plagiarized Bush, Jan. 29, 2014
Washington Post, How liberal was Obama’s State of the Union address?, Jan. 29, 2014
Washington Post, Obama lifted his Syria speech from Bush, Sep. 11, 2013
Email interview, Marc Thiessen, fellow, American Enterprise Institute, Jan. 29, 2014
Email interview, Jonathan Bailey, consultant, Plagiarism Today, Jan. 29, 2014
Merriam-Webster definition of plagiarize, accessed Jan. 29, 2014
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