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Keeping It Simple: Obama Records 2nd Lowest Flesch-Kincaid SOTU Grade Level Score Since FDR

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President's 2011 SOTU speech was written at more than a half a grade level lower than 2010's score, which was the 4th lowest in 75+ years

Although praised by many for the tone he struck in delivering his 2011 State of the Union address, many conservatives criticized Barack Obama's speech for being high on rhetoric and short on substance.

As it turns out, Obama's speech was historically short - both in sentence structure and the words he used.

Last year, Smart Politics calculated that Obama's debut State of the Union Address tallied one of the lowest Flesch-Kincaid scores in modern political history, by constructing his speech with sentences that were approximately 20 percent shorter in length than the nearly 70 oral addresses given since Franklin Roosevelt.

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.

But Tuesday evening's address beat even that.

A Smart Politics analysis of 69 orally delivered State of the Union Addresses since the mid-1930s finds the text of Obama's speech to have notched the second lowest score on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test recorded by a U.S. President.

Obama's speech had a Flesch-Kincaid grade level score of just 8.1 - which is a half a grade lower than the 8.8 he tallied in 2010.

Smart Politics ran the Flesch-Kincaid test on each of the last 69 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 (by 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, the vast majority of State of the Union speeches were delivered in writing.

President Obama now has the lowest average Flesch-Kincaid score for State of the Union addresses of any modern president - with his 8.5 grade level falling just below the 8.6 score recorded by George H.W. Bush during his presidency.

By contrast - the speeches delivered by two of the most popular presidents in Republican circles in recent generations - Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush - recorded average scores of 10.3 and 10.4 respectively - nearly two full grade levels higher than Obama.

Kennedy (13.2) and Eisenhower (12.8) delivered speeches that had a reading difficulty five and four grade levels higher than Obama respectively.

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
George H.W. Bush
17.4
8.6
13
Barack Obama
16.7
8.5
Data compiled by Smart Politics.

An observer of Obama's speech this week can certainly understand why his readability grade level was so low.

The President intentionally infused his speech with several succinct sentences, with short words, that were probably meant to be taglines of the address - or at least applause lines.

For example, near the end of his speech, Obama repeated the following phrase on multiple occasions to illustrate the American dream: "We do big things."

Obama's speech averaged just 16.8 words per sentence, which is the fifth lowest since 1934.

Only State of the Union addresses by George H.W. Bush in 1992 (15.8 words per sentence), Lyndon Johnson in 1965 (16.1), Harry Truman in 1951 (16.3), and Obama himself in 2010 (16.6) scored lower.

The president peppered short phrases throughout his speech, such as in his plea for bi-partisanship in the opening minutes:

"I believe we can. I believe we must....That's the project the American people want us to work on. Together."

As well as during his comments on the economy and the need for technological innovation:

"That world has changed. And for many, the change has been painful...They're right. The rules have changed....So yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real...The future is ours to win...Now it's our turn."

Of course, the downside of relying on these shorter catchphrases (e.g. "This is our generation's Sputnik moment.") means there is a tradeoff with more fully explaining the details of the policies being advocated in the speech.

As such, one of the criticisms levied at the president by some conservatives was that all of Obama's talk of "investment" and "innovation" in areas such as education and technology stopped short of explaining how the federal government was go to pay for it.

Instead, the President frequently offered rallying a cry, rather than a substantive plan, such as this part of the speech on transportation investments:

"We have to do better...Tonight I'm proposing that we redouble these efforts."

Or on taxes:

"Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field."

Although he is the owner of two of the lowest Flesch-Kincaid scores in history, this does not mean Obama delivered ineffective speeches per se.

As the attention span of Americans seems to get shorter and shorter each year, perhaps this less professorial approach to speechwriting is necessary to hold viewers and, perhaps, increase if not support for his policies, at least his short-term approval ratings.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for Orally Delivered State of the Union Addresses, 1934-2011

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
Obama 2011
16.8
8.1
Bush 1992
15.8
7.5
Average
20.6
10.9
Table compiled by Smart Politics.

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18 Comments


  • This is a really informative analysis -- and it provides additional evidence for Obama's ability to connect effectively via his rhetoric with a wide range of Americans. The indictment some have offered that Obama does not provide enough policy detail in the address suggests a rhetorical dilemma: if Obama were to laden the speech (already touching on a wide expanse of issues) with more concrete policy specifics, how long would the speech run? How much more complicated would it get? Could a 21st century televisual political audience process such a speech effectively?

    The continuing (and disparaging) description of Obama as overly "professorial" and "intellectual rather than emotional" from critics on the right is rather perplexing -- unless one considers the possibilities that (a) some on the right may be jealous that there hasn't been a truly eloquent GOP president in office since Reagan, and a GOP president both eloquent and possessing a clearly keen intellect since...???; (b) the fact that Obama is African American, but possesses superior rhetorical skills and intellect, might very well not be a comfortable reality for many on the right...

  • The dumbing of America continues unabated. That's why so many Americans liked Obama's speech. Not too many big words, few specifics to tax the brain and condescending enough for Americans to think they were watching Dr. Phil.

  • Obama's decision to dumb down the language in his SOTU address is evidence of his greatness as a communicator? By that logic those consistently at the top of this list must be terrible communicators. I doubt many would agree with your premise and place Kennedy and Roosevelt among the worst in their "ability to connect effectively" with a wide range of Americans.

    As regards Obama himself, what concrete evidence do you rely on to support your position that Obama has a "clearly keen intellect". He obviously is an eloquent speaker in the Reagan mold. When he is off speech, however, he sounds more like, uh, um, uh, GWB. Clinton's keen intellect was obvious. Not so with Obama. Just because you and yours YEARN for him to be this uberintellectual does not make it so. Please step away from the Kool-Aid.

  • I wonder if Obama's writers were also reacting to the charges that Obama oftentimes comes across as a law professor and not as a "normal" citizen. Shorter and simpler sentences are a powerful and immediate way to attack that perception and help Obama come across as "one of us."

    The flip side of course is that I think most people don't want a rather ordinary person sitting in the White House with access to nuclear codes. Perhaps if as a country we spent less time forcing our politicians to the center and left them alone to enact legislation based on their constituents, we'd get more work done and the country would be in better shape than it currently is.

  • Saying that a low Flesch-Kinkaid score is a "dumbing down" of text is simply wrong. You can convey complex ideas with simple text. Try it sometime -- Flesch and Flesch-Kinkaid are apps within all recent versions of MS Word, under "Readability Statistics."

  • Shorter sentences may have a different purpose than just dumbing down (though, since his audience is the American electorate, I would advocate that, too). If the purpose is to move to action, it makes sense. Think Hemingway, instead of Faulkner or James.

    As for the evidence of his "keen intellect", Mr. King, I suggest you read Dreams from my Father. This was no ghost-written celebri-tome, but a well-constructed memoir using interesting narrative technique. Or listen to the reports of the hundreds of people who have met with him and experienced it.

  • Speaking as a writer, I find the entire premise behind this offensive. Using short words and short sentences effectively is both more impressive and significantly harder than writing long, overly verbose sentences.

    I'm flat out shocked that there are attempts to portray that as a bad thing, and I'm equally sure anyone who has ever been in a college level course involving writing would agree.

  • Obama HAD to dumb his talk down because the only supporters he has left are the criminally stupid.

    He had to make it where they could understand every fifth word.

    Of course, Obama's speech writers were also dumbing it down so Obama himself could understand it all. He ain't all that bright either!

    Is it 2012 yet??

  • Crap!

    See how much can be conveyed in a short sentence of monosyllable words?

    Long sentences with multi-syllable words are primarily used (not utilized) to obfuscate. Try making sense of an insurance policy. Or, better still the recently passed Healthcare bill.

    Obama is not an intellectual giant, though he is vastly more intelligent than the morons that voted for him.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you... ever since Obama hit it big during his presidential campaign I have heard him praised as a great orator, yet he always sounded like a high school salutatorian giving a commencement speech to me. Any intelligent high school sophomore could elicit the litany of simplistic, sound-good phrases that he repeatedly does.

  • As with last year's SOTU, another interesting article and commentary.

    Based on these, I think the writing process between the president and his speechwriters would have been an interesting dialogue to watch and likely more interesting the than the SOTU itself.

  • Obama's intentionally trying to sound more accessible, more plain-spoken, more normal than he has since he entered public life. The president's trying to reinvent himself as a man of the people and a man who talks just like we do. He's trying to hide his sneering, condescending demeanor because people instinctively dislike being addressed in that way.

  • One thing I cannot understand is the way people (eg., Sarah Palin) say that Obama's speaking manner is "professorial." I'm a prof myself and have known hundreds of them, and I have never known one who talks anything like him. For one thing, a prof whose talk appealed to such an abysmally low level of intelligence would be an abject failure as a teacher. And that's just the beginning of the differences.

  • This clown "president" speaks in 4-word sentences, lowering his voice at the end of each one. Typical inexperienced acorn door knocker moron. The sooner this puke is gone, the United States can get moving again.

  • I think that what this demonstrates is that Obama was speaking to his base, which happens to be some of the least intelligent, least informed people in the U.S. All one has to do to understand the intellectual rigor of many/most people who voted for Obama is to watch the videos of the rallies before the election. Quotes like "I won't have to pay my rent or put gas in my car if [Obama] is elected!" are priceless and provide a clear window into the intellectual level of Obama's main base. Sure, a lot of academics are fans of his too, but let's be realistic here - just because you've been vetted by the left in academia and have joined them in the professoriat doesn't mean that you're any more intelligent than those outside the Ivory Tower.

    Also, we all need to acknowledge the fact that Obama is the most opaque president we've had in modern times. For all the claims of his stellar credentials vis-a-vis intelligence, we know almost nothing about his academic career; all we know is that he's was a "mediocre student" [his own words] and that even though he was ostensibly the editor of the Harvard Law Review, he did not make a single written contribution to the publication. This is unheard of in the world of rigorous academics. Furthermore, he refuses to release any records from his days at Occidental, Columbia, or Harvard. Heck, we haven't even seen a high school diploma. All this begs the question: what the heck is he hiding? Even G.W. Bush had good enough grades so that he wasn't too embarrassed to release his college transcripts, so this suggests that Obama is not even as intelligent as the favorite Whipping Boy of the Left re. dimwittedness, i.e., Dubya.

    To those who say he's so smart, there's an easy rebuttal to those of us who are convinced that he's rather ordinary, if not in fact a mediocre-at-best intellect: put up or shut up. Show us some transcripts.

  • In a study we have just completed into the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and other readability formulas, there's a consistent error of margin in all these tools. Flesch-Kincaid is one of the more accurate measure when tested against grade material, but it does have an average error margin of 1.7 grades. In other words, a grade level score of 10 has an accuracy of 8.3 to 11.7.

    The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level was only accurate to the correct year grade in 18 percent of samples measured.

    So only 6 of the 68 orally delivered State of the Union Address analyzed are outside the error of margin of 1.7 grades for the average of 10.7. These are:

    Truman 1952
    Obama 2010
    Truman 1951
    Johnson 1965
    Obama 2011
    Bush 1992

    As they go back to Truman in 1952 and Johnson in 1965, Obama's speeches are not a trend in dumbing down. Maybe Obama is a little more in touch with the language of the American people. Or maybe with most of the State of the Union addresses only varying in 3 grade levels, they are all reasonably written by seasoned speech writers.

    My own view - it just goes to show how inadequate readability formulas are at measuring anything other than sentence length and character (word length) counts.

    Nick Wright

  • Nick,

    Do you have a link to that study?

    Trevor

  • Guys... no. Flesch-Kincaid is utter garbage. It quite literally takes the average of EVERYTHING (not excluding single-syllable words, single-word sentences or single-sentence paragraphs [i.e., "No."]) instead of using any sort of, at the very least, half-assed algorithm to perhaps exclude such short sentences if they are surrounded by longer sentences and words with more syllables to better determine a more accurate reading level of the text. In other words, this entire paragraph, which I would say is VERY easy to follow, understand and read, is, according to Flesch-Kincaid, at a 12th-grade level with a "Flesch Reading Ease" (FRE) score of 45.5; but when I write much more complicated sentences (I'm a professional writer) that have dialogues which, naturally enough, include single-word sentences and extremely short paragraphs, I'm told that I write at the reading level of a 5th-grader. A 5th-grader! A 5th-grader is MUCH more likely to be able to read THIS than what I write for other writers!!

    In fact, in that above paragraph, by taking away my "A 5th-grader!" exclamation, according to Flesch-Kincaid, which uses words per sentence (WPS) to determine the readability of text, the WPS increases from 26.2 to 31.

    Garbage.

    (I just ran a test, in fact, and while it gave the overall text of one of my prologues a grade-level of 4.7 with a FRE of 87, it gave many individual paragraphs a FRE score of 0.0 and, again, a grade-level of 12 [the program I use has a maximum of 12 levels]).

    There needs to be a new standard.

  • Leave a comment


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