Did Obama Plagiarize State of the Union?

Was the 2011 SOTU a blatant rip-off of past speeches? Or simply banal?

Alvin Felzenberg argues that “Obama’s State of the Union Was Tantamount to Plagiarism.”

Had the president submitted the text of his second State of the Union Address in the form of a college term paper, he would have been sent forthwith to the nearest academic dean. Once again, our public affairs are such that we have one standard for presidents and another for undergraduates.

That’s a bold claim.  How so?

Early in his address, Obama said that he wanted the nation he leads to be a “light to the world.” The last president who set such a mission for the nation he led, and in those exact words, was Woodrow Wilson.

Variations on this theme go back to our colonial days and John Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” — a phrase re-purposed by Ronald Reagan.  No undergraduate would be docked for failure to footnote a common platitude.

Obama’s concept of the “American family” may well have had its origins in the first State of the State address New York Governor Mario Cuomo delivered in 1983. Cuomo proclaimed the state of New York as a “family.” He also talked about multiple partnerships, both public and private.

Seriously?  Every athletic coach argues that his team is a family, too.

In an address to the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990, Margaret Thatcher delivered what might go down as the most memorable line in Obama’s second State of the Union address. The British Prime Minister told her American audience that the United States was the “first nation to have been founded on an idea.” It took the president a few additional words to get this idea across.

Again, this is a major thread in the American myth.  Some variation on this has probably been in every SOTU in my lifetime.

Obama’s pointed mutterings about a second “Sputnik Moment” being upon us and his recollection of how American policymakers responded to the last one with increased expenditures on infrastructure, science, technology, and education were clearly intended to evoke the spirit of Dwight D. Eisenhower. His setting of specific deadlines and goals was vintage JFK, but for the absence of any sense of challenge to his audience, list of benefits the United States would derive from them, or any semblance of a shared adventure the American people were about to embark upon.

So, he’s being dinged for using an obvious historical allusion?  And accused of plagiarism for not copying it properly?

There was a certain Back to the Future feel to the masterful tributes Obama paid those Ronald Reagan might have described as “ordinary heroes.” After all, it was Reagan who began the practice of inviting citizens who had done extraordinary things to sit beside the first lady in the House gallery as the president recited their achievements. It was also Reagan who reminded his listeners that the greatness of America emerged not from the hand of government, but through the entrepreneurial spirit of the American people.

I find the “ordinary heroes” bit annoying. But, then, I’m hyperanalytical.  Most people love this stuff, which is why every president since Reagan has stolen this bit.

Obama received his most sustained applause when he said, “I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.” Leaving aside the faulty grammar (people change places with people, not with nations), the poaching from John F. Kennedy’s immortal inaugural address was obvious enough for the most historical of Obama’s listeners to notice. (“I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation.”) That Obama could utter almost identical words days after paying tribute to Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of the delivery of that famous speech and not making reference to it suggests a self-absorption rare even among presidents.

Hell, Jimmy Carter said much the same off the cuff when confronted by Latin American protestors.  Again, it’s a standard theme of American politics.  It’s objectively true:  Anyone in the room who wanted to live in another country could easily do so.  It’s also mythological:  Whatever was once true, there are now plenty of countries with comparable standards of living and sense of freedom. And that’s a good thing.

Most pointedly, the low point of Obama’s speech came when he brought back government re-organization from the ash heap of failed efforts of previous presidents who sought to save money without inflicting pain on a public that had grown accustomed to government largesse. This one, like all that talk about all those green energy jobs that lay before us, had fallen out of the presidential repertoire with retirement of Jimmy Carter. Obama might have had the decency to have Carter on hand to witness the moment. He will have another chance should he, when he delivers his budget, bring back that other Carter flop from yesteryear, “zero based budgeting.”

Uh, this has been a mantra of every Democratic president or presidential nominee in my memory.

Even Obama’s feigned attempt at humor had an antecedent in the remarks of a predecessor who spun better yarns than this president. Obama informed his listeners that salmon comes under the jurisdiction of one department when swimming in fresh water and under another when swimming in salt water. He rhetorically inquired what happened to the fish when “smoked.”

Somewhere in the White House library resides a published letter Franklin Roosevelt wrote to an adviser in which he complained that some bears were the property of the Interior Department, while others belonged the National Parks System. FDR, tongue in cheek, warned of a pending custody battle over cubs that emerged from illicit unions of bears crossing departmental jurisdictions.

I used variations of this old saw when I was teaching American Government 101. It’s funny because it’s true.

Feltzenberg’s charges of intellectual dishonesty here are, well, intellectually dishonest.  And that’s a shame, because he’s inadvertently made the case for a critique that’s actually true: The speech was a long, banal list of platitudes without much in the way of substance.

Then again, that’s only an indirect critique of Obama.   While he could have broken with recent tradition and actually said something, he instead followed suit and delivered a laundry list of vague policy goals that few could disagree with but that, alas, are unlikely to be achieved.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. mpw280 says:

    So basically it was a recycled speech for recycled ideas that have been shown to do nothing but blow up budgets and provide less for most and lots for the politically connected, if I am reading you right. mpw

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    The British Prime Minister told her American audience that the United States was the “first nation to have been founded on an idea.”

    And she was paraphrasing what G. K. Chesterton wrote in What I Saw in America.

    There is nothing new under the sun.

    I vote banal.

    I’m a bit more critical than you on the Sputnik bit, James. I think it fails on a number of grounds. First, probably 90% of a prospective audience doesn’t know what the heck he’s talking about. Second, he’s condensing too much history. It was a decade between the launch of Sputnik and landing on the moon. For the first five years of that decade we puttered along pretty much on the schedule we’d used before.

    NASA was founded to put the space program under civilian control and thereby reduce interservice rivalries. That’s what Ike was worried about, not the Russians.

    But most of all the space program was a mass engineering program rather than basic research. There’s a huge gap between those things.

  3. Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.

  4. Franklin says:

    Definitely banal. Felzenburg has wasted his reader’s time with this (and yes I put that apostrophe in the correct place).

  5. Hello World! says:

    ….and if you do a simple word search on the title of this post you get 28 hits, leading on to ask “Did James Joyner plagerize his post about the State of the Union” speech”.

    Can’t we just let the SOTU be what it is…a speech that is supposed to unify the country and make us feel good about America, like we are all in this together? Does it always have to be tear down? Do people really want America to fail? I think some people do….

  6. john personna says:

    It’s possible that Obama’s team wanted a non-controversial speech, and just erred on the side of boring. Or it’s possible that is what they really wanted, a speech to be forgotten in short order.

  7. john personna says:

    (I take this plagiarism meme to mean that there isn’t enough there in substance for critics to latch on to.)

  8. Maggie Mama says:

    As happens in all Administrations, staff changes in the White House is occurring on a continuing basis,

    Perhaps it’s time for the “writers” to go unless, of course, you believe Obama wrote the speech himself?

    Personally I think he needs to call a few of the comedians he has in his back pocket (Letterman perhaps) and ask for some help with joke writing. A few pointers on joke telling/timing couldn’t hurt either.

  9. george says:

    Worse, he probably had staff speech writers write some or even most of the speech, which will get you suspended in any good college. Does he loose marks for bad spelling on the written copy that goes to the critics for marking?

    Lucky for him he’s not in college any more …

    It must be a really slow day in critic land.

  10. anjin-san says:

    > Did Obama Plagiarize State of the Union?


    Is the right feeling a bit desperate in the face of Obama’s steadily improving numbers as we move towards the beginning of the next Presidential cycle?


  11. A San Franciscan says:

    Yes, quite banal with no new ideas, and lots of recycled phraseology. Unfortunately Obama has become quite predictable, which can be deadly for a politician. Basically, what does all this prove? What we are seeing and hearing is the “real” Obama. The man doesn’t have any new ideas beyond his frequently espoused leftwing flimflammery. Those ideas didn’t work in the past, and they won’t work in the future. Obama’s biggest problem? He is inflexible and unreceptive to new, bold ideas; he’s stuck with his leftwing philosophy and unable to move beyond it.. Obama’s saving grace in all this? He’s African-American, and the Americans enjoy having a non-white president, as it makes them feel like they are “unprejudiced.” If he were Caucausian, Obama would be irrelevant by this point for continutally spouting the same nonsense. This wasn’t America’s Sputnik moment, it was Obama’s. Sputnik was a small object going in circles and accomplishing very little. Just like Obama.

  12. An Interested Party says:

    “Sputnik was a small object going in circles and accomplishing very little.”

    Much like the “leftwing” drivel blathered about the president…I mean, really, when we look at the totality of what he has done as president, it is hardly “leftwing”…

  13. The Other Ed says:

    Felzenberg’s article is yet another example of why some people should not be allowed access to Google without the supervision of adults.

  14. ponce says:

    Wow, US News is still in business?

  15. G.A.Phillips says:

    Obama is incapable of Plagiarizing a speech, because he is a puppet…….

    Sucking he can do……

  16. Franklin says:

    I also wanted to note one of the most ludicrous parts of that article: that Obama would borrow something from Mario Cuomo. Yeah, I’m sure Obama’s team was just combing through every Cuomo speech to find something to copy.

  17. Jon Rockoford says:

    I distinctly heard Obama use the term “the” several times in his speech. I remember clearly hearing the term in other speeches by other people many times. I can’t believe Obama was so brazen to lift “the” from other speeches and think nobody would notice!

  18. Jon Rockoford says:

    BTW, is Alvin Felzenberg also a plagiarizer? Why it’s so obvious! The very first sentence in his “essay” is “If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” A quick Google search uncovers over 450,000 instances where this EXCACT phrase was used before by other people. Shame on you Alvin!

  19. Carwin says:

    Didn’t John Winthrop use the phrase “city on a hill” not Jonathan Edwards?

    Yes – fixed. Just going from memory, although it’s not unlikely that Edwards used the phrase too, given its biblical origins – jhj

  20. Muffler says:

    Enough already with the love of snipping at things of little consequence. The truth is if everyone wants to keep the United States in the forefront then it is clear that the we must own our future and find the way to do the correct things and not the ideological ones. Neither “sides” approach to the problems are entire wrong NOR entirely correct. They have evolved over decades as responses to each others political posturing. Worse the posturing was never met with actual actions as the evolved, so now we have extreme ideas posturing for emotional votes and the actions required to support them being dangerous for the country. Not only dangerous but irresponsible.

    The longer we attack the vehicles and ignore the logic and facts of the problems the faster I fear we will all fall. I for one do not wish to win the argument and then at the same time fail to do the right things.

  21. EddieInCA says:

    “A San Franciscan says:
    Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 10:58

    Yes… new ideas… and… deadly for a politician.

    …we are seeing and hearing…the “real” Obama. The new ideas… work.., and they…. work in the future. Obama’s biggest problem? He is inflexible and unreceptive to ….leftwing philosophy.

    Obama’s saving grace in all this? He’s… American…

    If he were Caucausian, Obama would be…. continutally spouting the same nonsense. ”


  22. john personna says:

    I think the best SOTU response is the line “sure we have a sputnik moment, it’s called ‘we’re broke!'”

    Spoken by first by John Boehner? But better delivery by Joe Scarborough.

  23. The Q says:

    Ronald Reagan, ever the actor, actually cribbed the shining city on a hill from JFK who used the term in his speech delivered on 9 January 1961 in The State House, Boston after he was elected:

    “But I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier.

    “We must always consider,” he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill – the eyes of all people are upon us.”

    Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us – and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill – constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.

  24. Eli Rabett says:

    The countries worth living in you couldn’t get a green card equivalent for, so put that one to rest.

  25. Pinky says:

    Every SOTU speech I have listened to since I became politically aware in the early 1970s have pretty much all sounded the same.

    President Obama hit all the required high notes:

    He praised “this great nation.”

    He praised the gallant military.

    Touched on education as a necessity.

    Spoke often of Republicans & Democrats working together (ha!).

    Yea for the common people.

    Asked god, the deity of the common people, for a blessing.

    The politicians in attendance did their usual choreographed dance of applauding and sometimes standing in response to points the president made in accordance with the scripting of their respective political parties.

    What President Obama did not do is try to assign blame for future failed initiatives. Many SOTU addresses I’ve heard, included a phrase like: “I challenge congress to pass a law that will put a trillion dollars in the hands of every single American without an increase in taxes.”

    Overall I thought this SOTU speech was better than most I have seen.

  26. michael reynolds says:

    Accusations of plagiarism are almost always wrong. Rough guess? 99.9% of such accusations are wrong.

    People who don’t write for a living tend to believe the accusations, those who do, don’t. Or to look at it another way, people who know what they’re talking about are strongly inclined to dismiss these accusations as stupid.

  27. Maggie Mama says:

    mike reynolds:

    “Accusations of plagiarism are almost always wrong. Rough guess? 99.9% of such accusations are wrong.”

    Just for laughs I’ll accuse Joe Biden of plagiarism.

  28. Nancy Irving says:

    A SOTU address chock-full of cliches? I am shocked! (SHOCKED!)