Talking about the future: Obama vs McCain

Kristin: I’ve been doing some research on how people think about the future, in particular the types of images of the future that inspire hope or fear, or the degree to which people actively think about the future.  Today I came across a reference to an article by R. Evered*. Evered had conducted a study into how ‘future-conscious’ US Presidents were by counting how often the words will, can, may, shall, would, could, might, should and must appeared in their inaugural addresses. Evered made the assumption that when these words made up more than 2% of the total words being used, then the future was being discussed.

And while there are plenty of questions that can be asked about this approach, I wondered how Obama and McCain stacked up in terms of their future-consciousness. We’re obviously still waiting for an inauguration speech, so I used a transcript of the first debate. On a rough view, these words made up less than 0.5% of the total words. On this very small sample, McCain was 40% more future-conscious than Obama, although Obama often used the phrase ‘we’ve got to’. Almost 90% of McCain’s future-focused words were will and would, and while Obama also favoured these, he was more varied, adding ‘may’ and ‘should’. Interesting, the future-focused words were mostly used for criticism, rather than for vision.

And this goes to the heart of the matter. Images of the future provide the opportunity to create a shared and preferred future and the motivation to move towards that vision. Just who is creating a vision for the US? And just who is creating a vision for us?

* Evered, Tech Forecasting & Social Change v 24 1983, cited in Tepperman & Curtis, Futures v 27 1995


  1. Yes! Watching the presidential debate (I’m in the U.S.) I found myself longing for more enlivening images of the future.

    It may be up to us to create them for ourselves, rather than waiting for elected leaders to do so. Seems to me that’s more possible than ever before.

    Your blog looks really great — close to my own interests. Was looking for RSS feed. Any chance you might add?

    Best regards,

  2. Interesting question and approach to determining the futures focus of candidates. I don’t easily accept the premise about the language cues. Looking at the question, however, I think it is quite possible for a candidate to use language and to express a future vision that is in fact a backwards longing.

    I am unreliably biased about this, because I am a U.S. progressive. But I’ll share anyway. I think American conservative politicians have a future vision that is about restoring things they think we used to have. Thus they may well talk using words like may, will, would, could, might, and should. They may have a clear vision of a future, just one in which we’ve restored things they think we should not have lost.

  3. I’m not convinced about the language cues method either! But I suppose it’s one approach. As I said, if I look at the language of the candidates more broadly, it is striking how many times Obama uses the phrase ‘we’ve got to’. He could have easily said ‘should’, but this phrase more urgently brings the future into the present and to change the past. It would be fascinating however to have a fuller look at the images of the future that each candidate holds – do you know of anywhere this has been done?

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