Starting a Business

How 'Small Business' and 'Entrepreneur' Fare in State of the Union Addresses

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"Small business" and "entrepreneur" weren't the most popular terms in President Barack Obama's State of the Union address last night. But that doesn't mean they haven't been a priority during his three -- going on four -- years in the White House.

Though largely ceremonial, State of the Union addresses are meant to serve as a guidepost of the administration's agenda during the year ahead -- or the next four years, depending on when the address is delivered. So if certain issues get highlighted, there's a good chance that the President will push Congress to act on them.

In his third State of the Union address last night, Obama called on Congress to offer legislation on everything from immigration and tax reform to rooting out financial fraud and continuing tuition-assistance programs. Specifically, for small business, he requested new legislation that would extend for a full year the payroll-tax holiday that gives consumers a tax break of $40 per paycheck on average. He also called for a reduction of regulations that prevent would-be entrepreneurs from landing the financing they need to startup and grow, as well as tax relief for businesses that raise wages and create jobs.

And though Obama didn't mention the terms "small business" and "entrepreneur" as much as in the past, relative to other modern-era presidents he may well be remembered as one of small business's biggest cheerleaders.

In his three State of the Union addresses to date, President Obama has mentioned the terms "small business" and "entrepreneur" a total of 22 and six times, respectively. That's the same number of mentions that both his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton offered combined -- and they had 14 addresses between the two of them.

State of the Union
Here, we look at how other more popular terms have performed in State of the Union addresses from 1934 to present. While "government" and "taxes" are among the more popular words used, "god" also ranks up there -- higher than "small business" and "entrepreneur" combined.

Perhaps more striking is that the word "entrepreneur" didn't even get a nod in a president's State of the Union address until 1984, after Ronald Reagan had been in office for three years. And since then, America's fast-growth companies have only been mentioned in those addresses just 13 times.

The shift may have to do with recent focus on entrepreneurs as job creators, says Barbara Perry, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. "Entrepreneurship is new terminology; it's a 21st century concept," she says. "Entrepreneurship goes beyond the person with the small shop on the corner… It's the dot com boom and bust. It's Facebook and pharmaceutical companies. It's a classier term for capitalist."

Gerhard Peters, co-director of the American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara adds that the idea of entrepreneurship is as old as the Republic. "The notion of entrepreneurship is engrained in our collective psyche," he says. "The notion of risk taking is broader. These aren't rich people, they are risk takers… We all like to think we all have an opportunity to take risks to borrow money and build something ourselves to become successful."

But perhaps these terms would be popular no matter who was in the White House. With an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent and millions of Americans underemployed, that's certainly a message any president might be looking to encourage. 

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