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'Professor' Obama? President's State of the Union Address Notches 4th Lowest Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Score Since FDR

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Text of Obama's Address has a readability score for an average 8th grader - two grades lower than George W. Bush's Addresses and the historical average for modern presidents

Barack Obama's ability as a public speaker since his 2008 presidential campaign has been alternately viewed, often depending on whether or not one is an Obama supporter, along various dyads: being inspirational versus being aloof, intellectualizing versus lecturing etc.

Along those lines, in her first month as a commentator for FOX News, Sarah Palin criticized Obama's first State of the Union Address on Wednesday night as "lecturing" the American public.

Unlike the criticisms hurled at his predecessor, however, few have ever charged that the President, a former senior lecturer in Constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, has written or spoken too simplistically or catered his words to the lowest common denominator.

However, a Smart Politics analysis of nearly 70 oral State of the Union Addresses since the mid-1930s finds the text of Obama's speech on Wednesday evening to have one of the lowest scores on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test ever recorded by a U.S. President.

The Flesch-Kincaid test is designed to assess the readability level of written text, with a formula that translates the score to a U.S. grade level. Longer sentences and sentences utilizing words with more syllables produce higher scores. Shorter sentences and sentences incorporating more monosyllabic words yield lower scores.

Smart Politics ran the Flesch-Kincaid test on each of the last 68 State of the Union Addresses that were delivered orally by presidents before a Joint Session of Congress since Franklin Roosevelt. Excluded from analysis were five written addresses (Truman in 1946 and 1953, Eisenhower in 1961, Nixon in 1973, and Carter in 1981) and two addresses that were delivered orally, but not by the President himself (Roosevelt in 1945, Eisenhower in 1956). Prior to FDR, most, but not all, such Addresses were delivered in writing.

Obama's Flesch-Kincaid grade level score of 8.8 for his first State of the Union Address was the fourth lowest score since FDR's first Address in 1934.

What this means is that Obama wrote and delivered a speech that incorporated shorter sentences, with those sentences containing shorter words, than nearly every such Presidential Address in the modern era.

Across the more than 75 years of speeches under analysis, the average sentence in State of the Union Addresses is 20.6 words in length.

But the average length of sentences comprising Obama's 2010 address was just 16.6 words in length - or 19.4 percent shorter than average. This also marks the fourth lowest average words per sentence used in State of the Union Addresses during the period under study.

President Obama's comparative brevity in his sentence structure and his frequent use of monosyllabic words can be seen in the following excerpts from his Address:

"Again, we are tested. And again, we must answer history's call."

"Now, let me repeat: We cut taxes. We cut taxes for 95 percent of working families. We cut taxes for small businesses. We cut taxes for first-time homebuyers. We cut taxes for parents trying to care for their children. We cut taxes for 8 million Americans paying for college."

"We have finished a difficult year. We have come through a difficult decade. But a new year has come. A new decade stretches before us. We don't quit. I don't quit."

As such, the speech by 'the professor' stands in contrast to his predecessor, 'the cowboy,' George W. Bush, who was frequently skewered by the left and late-night talk show hosts for his public speaking abilities, his intelligence, and his misuse of the English language.

Bush averaged a Flesch-Kincaid score of 10.4 across his seven State of the Union Addresses - or nearly two full grades higher than Obama's speech. Bush's speeches also averaged 2.4 more words per sentence than Obama, at 19.0.

In other words, the text of George W. Bush's speeches are expected to be understandable (in written form) by an average sophomore in high school, whereas Obama's speech should be understandable by a junior high school student.

Interestingly, George W. Bush's 10.4 Flesch-Kincaid score was also higher than several of his predecessors, including Ronald Reagan (10.3), Bill Clinton (9.5), and his father George H.W. Bush (8.6).

Overall, the Flesch-Kincaid grade level of presidential State of the Union Addresses has decreased in recent decades - with the last five presidents notching the five lowest scores.

John F. Kennedy's Addresses averaged a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 13.2 - with these speeches averaging 23.8 words per sentence. Dwight Eisenhower was close behind with a Flesch-Kincaid score of 12.8, with FDR at 12.5, Nixon at 11.6, and Gerald Ford at 11.2.

Average Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for Orally Delivered State of the Union Addresses by Presidents Since FDR

Rank
President
Words per sentence
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level
1
John Kennedy
24.4
13.2
2
Dwight Eisenhower
20.9
12.8
3
Franklin Roosevelt
24.4
12.5
4
Richard Nixon
23.5
11.6
5
Gerald Ford
19.3
11.2
6
Jimmy Carter
19.7
10.8
7
Harry Truman
19.0
10.6
8
Lyndon Johnson
20.3
10.4
8
George W. Bush
19.0
10.4
10
Ronald Reagan
19.6
10.3
11
Bill Clinton
19.0
9.5
12
Barack Obama
16.6
8.8
13
George H.W. Bush
17.4
8.6
Data compiled by Smart Politics.

The only other orally delivered State of the Union Addresses that were written with fewer average words per sentence than Obama's 16.6 average in his 2010 Address, and that scored lower than Obama's 8.8 Flesch-Kincaid score, were:

· George H.W. Bush's final Address in 1992 (7.5, 15.8 words per sentence)
· Lyndon Johnson's 1965 Address (8.6, 16.1 words per sentence)
· Harry Truman's 1951 Address (8.6, 16.3 words per sentence)

Though, with his shorter sentences and shorter words, Obama's Address may have been readable for junior high school students, it is not known if the average 12 and 13 year old was able to sit still through Obama's speech. At approximately 7,300 words, only Bill Clinton spoke more words before Congress and the nation in State of the Union speeches since 1934 (in 1994, 1995, 1999, and 2000).

This is not to suggest that short sentences cannot be effective when craftily composed and delivered effectively.

For example, conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham told FOX News' Bill O'Reilly Thursday evening that her favorite part of Obama's speech was the passage in which the President vowed the United States should seek to achieve and maintain it's #1 status in the world.

Notice how the passage in question is constructed by several short sentences of 5, 6, 8, 4, 12, and 13 words:

"These nations -- they're not standing still. These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They're making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America."

In fact, 31 of the 51 words in the passage above are monosyllabic.

In the end, it is not knowable at this time whether or not Obama's speech was effective in delivering what he wanted to achieve.

Still, it is, at the very least, interesting that 'the professor' should write and deliver a speech that has a readability level two grades lower than those crafted and delivered by 'the cowboy.'

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for Orally Delivered State of the Union Addresses, 1934-2010

President
Words per sentence
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level
Roosevelt 1934
30.1
15.7
Roosevelt 1937
26.3
14.5
Roosevelt 1938
27.5
14.3
Eisenhower 1955
21.8
14.0
Roosevelt 1935
25.5
13.9
Kennedy 1961
25.4
13.9
Eisenhower 1960
22.7
13.4
Eisenhower 1957
21.9
13.4
Roosevelt 1940
26.6
13.4
Kennedy 1962
24.1
13.3
Eisenhower 1954
21.2
13.2
Eisenhower 1953
19.9
12.8
Truman 1947
20.8
12.7
Kennedy 1963
23.8
12.5
Nixon 1974
25.3
12.4
Ford 1977
21.8
11.9
Bush 2005
21.6
11.8
Roosevelt 1939
22.2
11.7
Eisenhower 1958
19.9
11.7
Truman 1950
21.9
11.6
Nixon 1971
23.3
11.6
Johnson 1964
24.1
11.6
Eisenhower 1959
18.9
11.4
Reagan 1983
21.2
11.3
Roosevelt 1936
23.0
11.2
Carter 1980
20.7
11.2
Carter 1979
20.2
11.2
Roosevelt 1941
22.2
11.1
Nixon 1972
22.9
11.1
Nixon 1970
22.3
11.1
Roosevelt 1944
21.5
11.0
Reagan 1988
21.6
11.0
Ford 1975
18.3
11.0
Truman 1949
18.3
10.9
Roosevelt 1943
22.8
10.9
Reagan 1982
20.5
10.9
Johnson 1966
21.5
10.8
Bush 2006
19.2
10.8
Truman 1948
18.4
10.7
Johnson 1969
21.2
10.7
Ford 1976
17.9
10.7
Johnson 1967
19.9
10.4
Bush 2003
18.2
10.4
Johnson 1968
18.9
10.3
Bush 2008
18.4
10.2
Bush 2004
18.8
10.2
Clinton 1999
19.1
10.0
Carter 1978
18.2
9.9
Reagan 1987
18.6
9.8
Reagan 1986
19.8
9.8
Bush 2007
19.3
9.8
Reagan 1985
18.6
9.7
Clinton 1998
19.7
9.7
Roosevelt 1942
20.4
9.6
Clinton 1997
19.5
9.6
Reagan 1984
16.9
9.3
Clinton 2000
18.3
9.3
Clinton 1996
17.7
9.3
Clinton 1995
20.0
9.3
Bush 2002
17.8
9.3
Bush 1991
17.4
9.2
Clinton 1994
18.6
9.0
Bush 1990
18.9
9.0
Truman 1952
18.1
8.9
Obama 2010
16.6
8.8
Truman 1951
16.3
8.6
Johnson 1965
16.1
8.6
Bush 1992
15.8
7.5
Average
20.6
10.9
Table compiled by Smart Politics.

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Previous post: A Content Analysis of President Obama's 2010 State of the Union Address
Next post: Is Barack Obama Avoiding the Press?

61 Comments


  • This article is interesting but seems to be making the wrong point. I was struck by the plain spokenness of the adress myself as I've never heard him give a speech quite like it. I'm sure Obama could have written and given a much more complex address and has. But after dealing with the ignorance and immaturity of the American public for the past year, I'm sure he was aiming low for a reason.

  • ... so? shorter sentences and shorter words do not mean poorer speech quality. compare the content and then come back.

  • This is a great analysis. Obama's choices in vocabulary and syntax make perfect sense considering his rhetorical situation.

    He had to know three things going in: that the speech would be long to cover the variety of policy and motivational exgiences required of him; that he had been criticized for some time as excessively intellectual, detached, and removed from the perspective of average Americans; and that because of these constraints (as well as the need to connect with the broadest possible working- and middle-class audience of television viewers) his arguments and appeals needed to be simple, direct, and accessible.

    Constrast this against his predecessor, regularly criticized for his lack of intellectual curiosity and engagement... it's no wonder his speechwriters labored to lend Bush's prose a greater level of linguistic complexity to compensate.

    What tickles me, following this comparative analysis, is that Palin perceived such a style as a "lecture." Guess she needs something even simpler? How about puppets?

  • I think Obama when orating likes to use cadence and when the sentences and words are short, he is able to deliver in a quick and snappy rhythm, which probably what he was aiming at. He didn't dumb down the message, he only dumbed down the delivery. An unfortunate result to that strategy is a propensity to deliver a few platitudes.

  • I enjoyed the delivery, it was relaxed and even funny at times. But no president can overcome the limitations of the format.

    Would you rather he got up and suggested a manned mission to Mars and counted how many times he said 'war on terror'?

  • Obama was speaking to the type of people who would vote for him, not to authentic, educated Americans.

  • He's a simpleton, and apparently writes great fiction for 8th graders. Missed his calling.

  • I guess he wanted to make sure the Tea Partiers could understand him. Polling shows their average education level is 7.6 grade.

  • pmx, that is such a bunch of bs.

  • Proof in de Pudden
    obamayy true blooded
    Anti-American Progressive
    Good muslem.

  • In a recent speech about "jobs," Obama referred to tax cuts twice, small business eight times ... and himself 132 times.

    Barack Obama... He says nothing better than anybody!

    It is better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt. – Abe Lincoln

  • What disappoints me is the pure ignorance of your concept. Who cares what "grade level" the speech is? As you are, I assume, a college student, I trust you have the resources to have done some research on your president. You know he indeed was a professor; a constitutional law professor. Your attempt to make him look less-educated than his predecessors is inane. Why don't you try focusing on the speech's content, ideas, intent, and the purpose -- not to mention the audience.

    The speech's readability level has as much basis on its quality as does its total number of words.

    You're trying to be "cute." It didn't work. Your piece is not objective. It is slanted. Biased. And poor journalism. Your professor should be disappointed.

  • Posted by: pmx | January 29, 2010 10:40 PM

    How much lower should the educational level have been to reach the people at ACORN and the SEIU? But maybe he purposefully avoids terms that even they can understand. Perhaps he is afraid they will wake up and realize their mistaken infatuation.

  • I don't think G.W Bush was criticized for the written speeches. In fact, his written speeches were good because he had a good speech writers. Bush was criticized for his unscripted talk and the way he reads. Obama major speeches are so notable because he can make his case perfectly, not because of technicalities like the words he chooses.

  • Well....he doesn't need to speak to his base. He's trying to speak to the Republican base. What better way than to use 4th grade English. Bush did. Proof in point...did you ever read the signs of the Obama protestors?

    Semper Fi!

  • Interesting article and findings. One wonders if the Flesch-Kincaid research is more about assessment (objective) or evaluation (which must make a subjective judgement on something as good or bad). Word length of sentences and syllable content would not seem to be enough to make an accurate reading or an assignment of school grade. Educationalists for the last 20+ years have been basing progress and ability on the full range of the cognitive domain of which knowledge and comprension are the first two levels...there's also application, analysis and synthesis to consider. Having worked with both children and adults with learning difficulties for many years, I've met many who can read very difficult texts and generally understand the words...but find themselves unable to draw practical relevance to their own lives or communities, decide what they like or don't like about what they've read or offer an alternative perspective.

    Educationalists are also concerned about the affective domain- or the emotional impact- learning has on a person... sensory reactions, feelings, values and social and culture normative responses. The Flesch-Kincaid study was not designed to measure this...but it is here that its findings will likely be manipulated for political ends. For it would seem that as with all presidents it is the tone of Obama's public speaking persona that he will be judged. One can see the headlines- "Even an 8th grader can keep up with the President." "The dumbed-down Professor" "He's not as Smart as He Thinks He Is" "Professor President's New Clothes" etc. etc.

    To be fair to George Bush, he is not dumb...but did not convey a sense of intellectual curiousity in his tone and persona. His persona attempted to be "folksy," "home-spun," and "down-to-earth." Some doubtlessly appreciated it as evidenced by much of the tacky rhetoric spouted when a tea-partier manages to embarass himself or herself on camera. But many, regardless of party affiliation found it to be shallow, alpha-male caricature...hence the "cowboy." European Nuclear Freeze activists gave similar labels to Ronald Reagan...often portraying him on bill boards as the Malboro Man. To this day, I'd welcome the idea of having a cup of coffee with Mr. Bush, as I'd like to really get the measure of who he is and perhaps who he wanted to be when he was president.

    In the end, tone is purely subjective...but is often the filter by which most things have to work through in all kinds of discourse- family conversations, meetings with work colleagues and friends, sports commentary, news reports and the question of presidential leadership. Obama can claim many successes and failures this year on the basis of his tone which often drives leadership...but like a slightly de-tuned radio is faced with the challenge of getting it right.

  • I appreciate the analysis here but think the interpretation of the results is absolutely wrong-headed.

    The effectiveness of a speech should be measured by how well it was understood from the listener's perspective.

    The fact that Obama's speech ranked at an 8th-grade readability/understandability level yet never seemed "simplistic" or trite is a signal that the speech was crafted to ACTUALLY REACH more people.

  • It's gotta be really hard to not talk over the head of the average American.

  • Posted by: Nicole Waxmanpajamas | January 30, 2010 7:01 AM

    Did you not comprehend the article? Which of the Bushs' speeches was rate/evaluated as being 4'th grade level?

  • With Barry it isn't what or how he says it. The man is a pathalogical liar. Words don't matter. Or to be short for junior high school students: he is full of bulls*it. The only way Barry gets a pass is because he is blaaack. Everyone knows that.

  • Interesting that so many Obama-supporting commenters on here have such low opinions of Americans....just like their President.

    Perhaps Obama's teleprompter can only handle so many words per sentence? Or perhaps it is just easier to lie with shorter words. Maybe it's both.

    I get a kick out of the blinded Obama supporters who can't take simple, fun-to-read facts like those presented here without berating Americans, ridiculing George W Bush, or placing Obama on some pedestal.

    Geez...this was done for many Presidents going back several decades....Are they all stupid, too, even though most of their speech reading levels top Obama's speech?
    Everything is nuance with you people....lighten up.

  • My recollection of past speeches by George W was that his proposals were "dead on arrival" in the Congress. With Obama the entire focus is on him and how he performed. The far left does tend to lecture because they believe they know what is best for us collectively.

  • I am a communication specialist and a 32-year veteran broadcast journalist and I find it very refreshing that the president is using language that everyone can understand. It's time our leaders learned to communicate in a way that does not hide their true intent.

  • Lol! Obama is a bigger idiot than Bush; just look at the idiots that surround him...Biden, Gibbs, Holden, Reid, Pelosi...I can go on and on. You idiots on the left have to compare him to Reagan, JFK and Abe Lincoln to make him look good...that says a lot about your empty suit messiah. Obama the moron...he's quite the imbecile. The one term moron will soon be gone!

  • I think the "point" was to look at the thought that Bush was not a good speaker or able to present as well as Obama. Lets face it, Obama has the better reputation with the public.

    I, I, I, uh, uh, uh, and the analysis above is probably an attempt to give pause to those giving Obama a pass without scrutiny... all while griping about Bush

  • Everything Obama say's has a expiration date. What grade level he say's it at is not important. The fact that our current President spends the bulk of his time attacking Americans instead of defending them, much like his supporters like to do.

    Pay attention to an Obama speech and you will see a unmistakable pattern. Obama will support one side of the arguement, and then about 5 minutes later in the speech he will support the other side of the same arguement.

    In other words, he's still voting "Present" the same way he did with an alarming frequency while he was a Illinois state senator.

  • Thank you for posting this!!!!!!

    I used it on today's CC post with two Hat Tips!

    COMMON CENTS
    http://www.commoncts.blogspot.com

  • Interesting but sort of irrelevant. Obama spent 70 minutes bold faced lying, getting facts completely incorrect (how does a former Senator not understand McCain-Feingold?), and looking down his nose at the Americans who voted him into office. I dont care how long his sentences were....just that he is an absolute disaster for the country. If he spent more time getting out of the way of regular Americans instead of pushing his radical agenda on us, maybe unemployment wouldnt be in double digits and he wouldnt have quadrupled the debt to pay off his friends....

    Is it 2012 yet?

  • The State of the Union address is intended to be for the audience of the CONGRESS. After all the speeches, weekly addresses, news conferences, and statements he has given ALL YEAR, THIS is the one time that the president goes and speaks directly TO THE CONGRESS one time a year about what they have done, and what the president wants them to do the next year.

    This speech is for CONGRESS, not for the everyman in America. Why is he dumbing-down the one speech of the year he is supposed to give to the specific audience of the CONGRESS?

    Or rather, how many people with an 8th grade level education do you think were listening to the State of the Union? No matter which side you were on (I'm on the side that believes he was lecturing (and lying profusely) us for not agreeing with him rather than debating his points for rebuttal and understanding). . . but it was BORING. Reid yawned, Napolitano fell asleep, etc, etc, etc.

  • Can't believe that there is still people out there that believe that this guy is smart. Obama equalls script written for him reading off of TelePrompTer. Wow! He's smart !!!! Oh but Wait, I guess he is preaching to the right intellects!

  • He has to dumb it down. The Congress he was speaking to does not even understand a simple sentence such as, Read the bill before you vote!

  • The post by pmx (10:40 pm) stating that Tea Partiers' average education is 7.6 grade shows how some people will believe anything. Gullible people like pmx elected Obama as president, despite his constant lying, starting early in the campaign with Ayers (just a guy who lives in my neighborhood), Wright (O. didn't hear those sermons), post-partisanship, etc.

    Pmx -- would you mind providing your source? Pmx?

  • Curious how would Churchill score

  • So, shall we infer the President thought it necessary or expedient to address Congress at a level even lower than when speaking to Americans at large? Fascinating...

    How many Americans might be interested to see the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of BHO's college thesis for further comparison? (Of course, if that document ever was released, it would be relevant to know if Bill Ayers was the actual author of that one, too...)

    And for those in the audience who yet cling to the fallacy-fantasy that "Bush is an idiot!", and "Everything wrong in America is Bush's fault!", it's worth remembering that, second only to Woodrow Wilson (28), Geo. W. Bush (43) was the highest-educated President ever elected (and his MBA was from Harvard). Some cowboy...

  • Lies have to be short and score well with low intelligence people or they unravel.

    I've seen almost all the SOTU addresses and this was one of the worst. I'm sure that the great orator or teleprompter reader gave himself a Solid B+. I gave him a D-.

  • "The professor" surely didn't write that speech. Presidents have a staff of folks who do that for them.

  • David at 1:53 says "You know he indeed was a professor; a constitutional law professor."

    That is not true, He was never a professor, He was a lecturer. Puffing up His credentials only shows your belief that He is unable to stand on His own accomplishments.

  • This just goes along with his belief that the American people (read that bitter clingers) are too stupid to realize he is doing everything for them. He has already said that he didn't explain health care right and that is why the people are rejecting it. I would guess the SOTU was purposely "dumbed down" for our comprehension. I sure wish he was up for reelection in November. In keeping with the health care meme, I'm getting really sick of this clown.

  • By way of comparison to Obama's SOTU, Joe McDaniel's BLOG COMMENT is written at a 12-grade level and averages 28.69 words per sentence. I found the text to be highly readable and I generally understood the words.

    Based on this sentence, "Some doubtlessly appreciated it as evidenced by much of the tacky rhetoric spouted when a tea-partier manages to embarass himself or herself on camera", I wish to offer an alternative perspective: Joe wants to piss down my back and tell me it's raining.

    The window dressing was appreciated, however.

  • The comments here are almost as interesting as the article (which is a nice touch -- and shows quite a lot of initiative -- interesting angle, no matter what your point of view).

    How dare anyone put in print anything that might even hint at a negative connotation with respect to this fellow Obama.

    Let's see, how does it go? Question the education level of members of the Tea Party movement (what does that have to do with the President's own chosen words, or the topic). Question the relevance of the article at all (folks -- look at trends over time -- where did your muse JFK rank -- consistently over time -- yet it means nothing when it comes to BHO). Even throw Sarah Palin into the mix (uh, anyone here ever actually attend a lecture or understand the meaning of the word (?) -- lecturing is a characteristic of the tone, content and delivery of words -- yes, you can be lectured using short sentences).

    It's astounding how hyper-sensitive are these knee-jerk apologists and defenders of the "image" of this man. An image they have created and refuse to see sullied, regardless of the substance of the criticism. That's called dogmatism (in one or another of several shades). Something of which I've been "lectured" liberals (or as they like to be called these days -- progressives) are simply not capable. By liberals, of course.

    I find fault with both extremes of the political spectrum so this is not a criticism aimed only at the blathering fools who feel compelled to sling the pots, pans and household pets at this writer (of the article, not me, to be clear). It's only that they are the ones showing their infantile intellect at the moment.

    Most of us live in the middle somewhere (thus called Independents). You might have noticed some of us showing up at the polls lately. We'll be back.

  • I'm pretty positive that presidents don't write their own speeches anyways, althought they have to approve it. This article is ridicilous and biased. It's taking anaylsis that doesn't mean anything and trying to use it against Obama. Just because someones speech has 4 more words per setence doesn't make them any smarter haha. In order to get to be president you can't be stupid. I don't even like Obama but I like this article less.

  • It's time to state the obvious about Emperor Obama and his rhetorical clothes; he is naked. While he is a good reader he is an atrocious speaker. With his "tennis match" head turning, his uplifted chin, never looking straight ahead and his annoying speech mannerisms the guy is painful to watch. Maybe the spell will be broken by his weak content and then even the most enthralled will come to recognize the truth. His purported strength is actually an almost comical weakness.

  • This article is interesting, albeit rather pointless. As many of you pointed out, Obama doesn't write the speech. He is certainly an expert at reading them... off of teleprompters though.

    The crazy part about the article is calling Obama a Professor. While he may have had a job like that, not one thing of his has been released. He never actually did one of the reviews that was supposed to be his job. Nothing of his has been let out. It is hidden never to be seen by us who can't understand what he is doing 'for us.'

    It is pretty lame that he can talk about transparency and not deliver... talk how the other party has to support him because saying no to everything isn't governing, when his stuff is written in secrecy behind closed doors... etc. All this when he has the most secretive past of any President in History.

    Please Mr. President! Mr. 'Profressor.' Whatever. We are not dumb. We are more informed now than ever. It takes more than a speech (even if it is dumbed down for us) to get us to believe your b.s. How about you listen to what we are saying and do accordingly.

  • After 400 speeches and 150 interviews, President Obama claims that we as a nation do not understand the health care bill he desires for us. (Of course, he can't tell us WHICH health care bill because the House and Senate bills are so radically different, and no one has seen anything about the one in conference.)

    So now he talks down to people in an effort to help them understand.

    I think shouting will be next: "IT'S GOOD FOR YOU - JUST DO WHAT YOU ARE TOLD AND WE ALL WILL BE HAPPY!"

    And we have so little else to go on as far as Obama's overall abilities are concerned. We have nothing published in law reviews or journals. No text books that he has written. We have not seen his grades, or even know what classes he attended.

    We have two autobiographies, but who knows how much ghost writers did for them. If Kennedy used ghost writers, it is certainly possible Obama had one too.

    All we have are speeches expertly read from teleprompters and notes, written by speechwriters, and some interviews with gushingly adoring journalists.

    He certainly has style, and he may very well be smart, but there is a lack of supporting evidence.

  • Heh. Funny how all these posts are making excuses for The One, who is truly the most condescending, arrogant, narcissistic person we have ever had in that esteemed office. The guy's an empty suit, swinging his head from right to left to read the teleprompter.

  • If I were to judge by the comments alone, I would certainly expect that the article was written with an anti-Obama slant. Instead, upon rereading I found only an implication that there might be an anti-Obama message. The hint was where the author point out the possibility that the facts could lead to a pro-Obama interpretation.

    Ostermeier writes, "This is not to suggest that short sentences cannot be effective when craftily composed and delivered effectively." This seems to presume that the reader would have likely reached the opposite conclusion. Its a pretty weak hint of a bias that was never explicitly stated.

    That's a pretty subtle hint at bias. Even the use of the figurative label "The Professor" is balanced by the equally figurative moniker, "The Cowboy". The article had virtually no editorial content, much less bias; it just presented the literacy measures and said, "That's interesting."

    The really interesting part of this article, then, is the direction and level bias that was perceived within the article, and the intense anger and disrespectfulness from the vast majority of commenters, both from the left and the right. My thanks go to Joe McDaniel for showing no disrespect in either direction. He just expanded on the possible interpretations left for us to ponder.

  • Whether you agree with his policies or not, calling Obama dumb, as many of the commenters have, is simply silly. Same with the tired argument that all he can do is read from a teleprompter.

    Perhaps you missed it, but Obama didn't have or need a teleprompter to competently debate substantive points with an entire roomful of GOP House Republicans... all of whom were trying their best to trip him up Friday. Even the most biased would have to concede that he more than held his own in a forum that would be extremely difficult for anyone. Can you imagine W even attempting something like that? Of course not.

    I have the audacity to consider myself a pretty bright guy by most standards (test at the 99th percentile), but I couldn't begin to take on a roomful of opponents in a forum like that. Regardless of where he falls politically, the man's demonstrated repeatedly by various means that he's extremely bright. Those who suggest otherwise only expose themselves as perhaps not intelligent enough to recognize intellect when they see it. These are largely the same folks who are unable to recognize that Sarah Palin's average-at-best intellect is insufficient to support her presidential aspirations.

  • This is an interesting study, however, I have to question the value of the information. From my perspective, the ability to convey complex information in a clear and concise manner using simple language is a sign of great intelligence. Now perhaps my view is the result of, like President Obama, having been educated at Harvard Law School and having significant experience with trying to summarize incredibly complex legal issues in relatively short briefs, but I don't believe that one needs to have this background to share this view. Many top professors (in all fields) are differentiated from their more research-oriented colleagues by their incredible ability to not only understand difficult concepts, but to successfully convey the concepts to less educated individuals without over-simplifying. After all, while it is relatively easy to over-complicate concepts and use long sentences and "difficult" vocabulary, the need to rely on these techniques is very frequently a sign of someone desperate to impress the reader, a ruse to try to "prove" oneself or an effort to disguise a failure to fully understand a concept. As they say in many legal circles, the easiest way to spot a sub-par lawyer is to look for a brief that appears to be written with a thesaurus.

  • Nice. It's really good fun to compare these guys.

    It's the sign of a great orator to use simplistic language to convey complex issues - even of he doesn't write his own speeches.

    Try this readability test tool - http://www.read-able.com/ - to test out other politicians' speech writer's skills.

  • Reposting Lynn's comment as the best comment here, by far! Thanks!


    He has to dumb it down. The Congress he was speaking to does not even understand a simple sentence such as,

    Read the bill before you vote!

    Posted by: Lynn | January 31, 2010 10:08 AM

    LOL - Love it!


  • The article and its resulting commentary may be over...but was enjoyable to read and discuss. My apologies to Loren (Jan. 31st at 1:44) if my comment regarding tea partiers caused any offense. I enjoy sharing my point of view...but not imposing it or making judgements when someone's point of view differs mine. My comment directed at the "tea partiers" is more about peoples' behaviour when discussing disagreements. I was however, one-sided in my comment which was not fair and again, I apologize. Wherever one's views lie on the spectrum- right, center, left...there's a need for civility... so just as I dislike the behaviour of the "tea partiers" and people who rudely shouted people down at town hall meetings on health care last year I am equally irritated by those who declare the compromises made by politicians as selling out. I am angered further by those who engage in destructive stunts to make their point... an example would be when people protest against global capitalism by vandalising a McDonald's or kicking in the windows of a bank.

    In the end the sources of political criticisms are rarely about the intricacies of the issues themselves. The current administration's answers to the issues of the day will have their successes and failures as would the Republican Party or any other party that held the executive branch. However, our country's problems are deeply entrenched by historical value-based tensions around the role of the state and the role of the individual. The feelings are understandable and a part of our heritage but somehow we still have to find constructive ways forward.

  • "The Professor"? Hmmm. Resentment at status much? What is the evidence for this naming? The fact that he served as a lecturer at U Chi Law School? There was some controversy (on the Drudge Report and Fox News at least) about "professor" status for this role. But it seems a strange inclusion as the BASIS for this otherwise mastubatory reduction of communication to statistics. The reason we don't count words this way in day to day life is not a lack of focus, but a sensitivity to language. If this is where PolySci is headed, it will be even less useful somehow.

  • I don’t think sentence length, and whether or nor President Obama’s speech is like that of an 8th grader’s, has anything to do with the quality and effectiveness of any of the messages that he’s trying to communicate.

    He doesn’t use inappropriate or made up words like President Bush did (regardless of whether he had a Yale and Harvard education or not). And as we all know a decent education doesn't necessarily make you an effective communicator or speaker.

    In his book “Lend Me Your Ears”, British author Professor Max Atkinson suggests that 16 words per sentence is about average when you’re trying to capture your own speaking rhythm. If we consider that the average speaking rate is about 120 words per minute and the average length of sentences in speeches is around 8 seconds that gives us 16 words per sentence.

    A lot of speakers, whether they’re politicians or not, tend to use longer sentences as they are speaking text meant to be read, rather than to be spoken. More often than not teams of writers and committees are involved in this process, so it ends up being more like a document than something that reflects how someone actually sounds.

    A speech is designed to be spoken and should, in my opinion, reflect a speaker’s own natural speech rhythms, otherwise there can be an emotional disconnect between the speaker and the audience.

    Shorter sentences and less complex words can allow a speaker to more easily connect with their audience. It can sometimes also help a speaker build to a crescendo; I’m not suggesting the President did this with this State of the Union Address I am just providing another reason as to why a speaker might want to consider using shorter sentences.

    You also have to try and reflect the times and the sheer fact is that the vast majority of people listening to his speech, or the speech of any politician, use shorter sentences and less complicated words. It’s just the sign of the times.

    Even an emotionally dry speaker like Queen Elizabeth II of the U.K. has changed her speaking style somewhat during her reign. However, she is still apt to occasionally use words like annus horribilis as she did in a speech in 1992.

  • A REALLY fascinating and fresh look at the state of American politics and how the words-per-sentence and Flesch-Kincaid scores affect public opinion. Perhaps the scores have subsequently lowered as politicians realize they can communicate with everyone by appealing to a lowered intelligence level. The unexpected result is a long-term denigration of the perceived intelligence of the public... each year we're pandered to at a lower and lower level.

  • Word length, sentence length, and number of syllables have got to be the most irrelevant means for evaluating the intelligence of a President that I can think of. One could easily right jibberish sentences full of words like "misunderestimate" and "refudiate" that would score high on the Flesch-Kinkaid scale. So? I'm not a big fan of Obama, but he got into Harvard law on the merits and became editor of the law review, which is believe is a blind process, whereas Bush II admits to getting "gentlemen's Cs" at Yale, which is the C a professor gives to legacy admissions after they fail the class because the student's family gave enormous pots of money to Yale. Every honest person who worked for Bush knew of his total lack of intellectual curiosity and involvement with the intricacies of the job. He was just sitting back while Cheney ran things.
    If we're going to bother evaluating presidential intelligence, we need a better measure than word counts in speeches written by others. And by the way, all Presidents used notes or teleprompters for their speeches. You could see Bush pause as the lines of text changed on his.

  • The State of the Union address is intended to be for the audience of the CONGRESS. After all the speeches, weekly addresses, news conferences, and statements he has given ALL YEAR, THIS is the one time that the president goes and speaks directly TO THE CONGRESS one time a year about what they have done, and what the president wants them to do the next year.

    This speech is for CONGRESS, not for the everyman in America. Why is he dumbing-down the one speech of the year he is supposed to give to the specific audience of the CONGRESS?

    Or rather, how many people with an 8th grade level education do you think were listening to the State of the Union? No matter which side you were on (I'm on the side that believes he was lecturing (and lying profusely) us for not agreeing with him rather than debating his points for rebuttal and understanding). . .Its just their opinion as evryone else!

  • Indeed that Obama was speaking to the type of people who would vote for him, not to authentic, educated Americans. I totally agree with "R W Johnson" also it was a great thing to compare these guys.

  • The State of the Union address is intended to be for the audience of the CONGRESS. After all the speeches, weekly addresses, news conferences, and statements he has given ALL YEAR, THIS is the one time that the president goes and speaks directly TO THE CONGRESS one time a year about what they have done, and what the president wants them to do the next year.

    This speech is for CONGRESS, not for the everyman in America. Why is he dumbing-down the one speech of the year he is supposed to give to the specific audience of the CONGRESS?

    Or rather, how many people with an 8th grade level education do you think were listening to the State of the Union? No matter which side you were on (I'm on the side that believes he was lecturing (and lying profusely) us for not agreeing with him rather than debating his points for rebuttal and understanding). . . but it was BORING. Reid yawned, Napolitano fell asleep, etc, etc, etc.

  • The State of the Union address is intended to be for the audience of the CONGRESS. After all the speeches, weekly addresses, news conferences, and statements he has given ALL YEAR, THIS is the one time that the president goes and speaks directly TO THE CONGRESS one time a year about what they have done, and what the president wants them to do the next year.

    This speech is for CONGRESS, not for the everyman in America. Why is he dumbing-down the one speech of the year he is supposed to give to the specific audience of the CONGRESS?

    Or rather, how many people with an 8th grade level education do you think were listening to the State of the Union? No matter which side you were on (I'm on the side that believes he was lecturing (and lying profusely) us for not agreeing with him rather than debating his points for rebuttal and understanding). . .Its just their opinion as evryone else!

    And I am glad that we can share our opinions. Because if we couldn't, it would be a nightmare.

  • I don’t think sentence length, and whether or nor President Obama’s speech is like that of an 8th grader’s, has anything to do with the quality and effectiveness of any of the messages that he’s trying to communicate.

    He doesn’t use inappropriate or made up words like President Bush did (regardless of whether he had a Yale and Harvard education or not). And as we all know a decent education doesn't necessarily make you an effective communicator or speaker.
    Acne Home Remedies: The acne home remedies are becoming increasingly popular because of its effectiveness. However, before you start to see some home remedies for acne that have worked for others, it is important to note that the skin of the whole world is different and the condition of acne sufferers.

    The State of the Union address is intended to be for the audience of the CONGRESS. After all the speeches, weekly addresses, news conferences, and statements he has given ALL YEAR, THIS is the one time that the president goes and speaks directly TO THE CONGRESS one time a year about what they have done, and what the president wants them to do the next year.

  • I enjoyed the delivery, it was relaxed and even funny at times. But no president can overcome the limitations of the format.

  • Leave a comment


    Remains of the Data

    Which States Have the Longest and Shortest Election Day Voting Hours?

    Residents in some North Dakota towns have less than half as many hours to cast their ballots as those in New York State.

    Political Crumbs

    Mary Burke: English First?

    While multiculturalism and bilingualism are increasingly en vogue in some quarters as the world seemingly becomes a smaller place, one very high profile 2014 Democratic candidate does not shy away from the fact that she only speaks one language: English. In an attempt to highlight her private sector credentials working for Trek Bicycle, Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mary Burke boasts on her campaign bio page how she made great strides in international business dealings...while only speaking English: "Despite not speaking a single foreign language, she established sales and distribution operations in seven countries over just three years." Note: According to 2010 Census data, nearly half a million Wisconsinites over five years old speak a language other than English at home, or 8.7 percent, while 4.6 percent of Badger State residents do not speak English at all.


    Does My Key Still Work?

    Much has been made about Charlie Crist's political transformation from Republican to independent to Democrat en route to winning the Florida GOP and Democratic gubernatorial nominations over a span of eight years. Party-switching aside, Crist is also vying to become just the second Florida governor to serve two interrupted terms. Democrat William Bloxham was the first - serving four year terms from 1881 to 1885 and then 1897 to 1901. Florida did not permit governors serving consecutive terms for most of its 123 years prior to changes made in its 1968 constitution. Since then four have done so: Democrats Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, and Lawton Chiles and Republican Jeb Bush.


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