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Obama's SOTU: Uniting the Country...through Pronouns?

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Obama's 2011 State of the Union incorporated the 2nd largest percentage of first-person plural pronouns since FDR - one year after his 2010 Address delivered the 7th largest use of first-person singular pronouns

It is sometimes said that politicians - particularly those who attain the highest levels of elected office like that of the presidency - have unusually large egos.

But when the President of the United States holds court before tens of millions of Americans in important speeches such as the State of the Union Address, it is usually in his best interest to check that ego at the podium, and talk about the nation, not himself.

One rhetorical device the president can employ to still get his message across and advocate his policies is to deliver those remarks utilizing first-person plural pronouns (e.g. we, us, our) rather than singular pronouns (e.g. I, me, mine, myself).

By doing so, the president's language can strategically (even if superficially) frame his message as unifying the country, bridging political parties, and, most importantly, linking and identifying the president himself with the American people.

But not all presidents take the same approach when peppering their speech with plural versus singular first-person pronouns - and virtually none have taken it to the extent of Barack Obama, who nearly made (presidential) linguistic history last week.

A Smart Politics analysis of orally delivered State of the Union Addresses since Franklin Roosevelt's first address in 1934 finds President Obama's 2011 speech recorded the second largest percentage of first-personal plural pronouns out of nearly 70 such addresses.

In total, more than 5 percent of Obama's speech included these "unifying" pronouns - 354 out of nearly 6,900 words - or 5.14 percent of the President's speech.

That means more than 1 out of every 20 words delivered by Obama fell into the pronoun families of "we, our, and us."

Obama's 2011 State of the Union included:

· 147 uses of the word "we," plus another 40 cases of its related offshoots "we'll," "we're," and "we've."

· 122 instances of the word "our," plus four more of "ours" and "ourselves."

· 33 uses of the word "us," plus another eight cases of "let's" (let us).

The only president over the past 77 years who delivered a State of the Union address with a larger percentage of first-person plural pronouns was Democrat Harry Truman in 1951 - in his first address after the onset of the Korean War.

In that address, Truman used 308 of these pronouns in his 3,989-word speech, or 7.72 percent of the address - nearly double the 3.88 percent presidential average over the past 75+ years.

Interestingly, each of the top six slots for State of the Union speeches with the most uses of "we, our, and us" are all held by Democrats.

After Truman in 1951 and Obama in 2011, comes Jimmy Carter in 1979 (#3, 5.13 percent), Truman in 1952 (#4, 5.04 percent), Truman in 1950 (tied for #5, 4.99 percent), and Bill Clinton in 1997 (tied for #5, 4.99 percent).

Obama's 2011 address is already noteworthy for recording the second lowest Flesch-Kincaid score out of the 69 oral State of the Union speeches since 1934.

Many conservatives criticized the President's speech for coming up short on details in his discussion of the country's big problems, such as how Obama will tackle the federal budget deficit and national debt, and how he plans to pay for the myriad of domestic policy programs that he advocated in his speech, such as education and infrastructure.

But while the President's SOTU may have been thin on the mechanics of policy implementation, and comparatively simplistic in sentence length and word length, his speech was long on first-person plural pronouns, delivered strategically to signify his personal relationship with Americans.

For example, Obama interjected several of these pronouns right off the bat, in his introductory remarks on the first substantive policy area of his speech - the economy:

"We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back...But we have never measured progress by these yardsticks alone. We measure progress by the success of our people. By the prospects of a small business owner who dreams of turning a good idea into a thriving enterprise. By the opportunities for a better life that we pass on to our children." (emphasis added)

The President continued to implement first-person plural pronouns in the very next section of his speech, this time to paint a picture of unification between Democrats and Republicans in D.C. and the need for bi-partisanship for the good of the nation:

"That's the project the American people want us to work on. Together. We did that in December. Thanks to the tax cuts we passed, Americans' paychecks are a little bigger today....But we have to do more. These steps we've taken over the last two years may have broken the back of this recession, but to win the future, we'll need to take on challenges that have been decades in the making."

And, of course, Obama delivered both of his signature lines of the evening employing these very same plural pronouns:

"This is our generation's Sputnik moment."

"We do big things."

In only two other speeches since FDR has a president included a larger raw number of such pronouns in a State of the Union speech - although both of those speeches were more than 2,100 words longer than Obama's: Bill Clinton in 1995 (415 such pronouns, ranked #13 by percentage) and 2000 (397, #21).

Percentage of First-Person Plural Pronouns in SOTU Addresses, 1934-Present

Rank
Year
President
Total
Words
%
1
1951
Truman
308
3,989
7.72
2
2011
Obama
354
6,891
5.14
3
1979
Carter
168
3,275
5.13
4
1952
Truman
269
5,336
5.04
5
1950
Truman
256
5,126
4.99
5
1997
Clinton
337
6,758
4.99
7
1985
Reagan
205
4,226
4.85
8
1978
Carter
218
4,587
4.75
9
2006
Bush 43
250
5,303
4.71
10
1980
Carter
161
3,469
4.64
11
1999
Clinton
344
7,490
4.59
12
1984
Reagan
227
4,952
4.58
13
1995
Clinton
415
9,181
4.52
14
1987
Reagan
171
3,799
4.50
15
1991
Bush 41
177
3,941
4.49
16
2002
Bush 43
171
3,823
4.47
17
1996
Clinton
282
6,335
4.45
17
2008
Bush 43
255
5,730
4.45
19
2010
Obama
321
7,237
4.44
20
1986
Reagan
153
3,479
4.40
21
2000
Clinton
397
9,073
4.38
22
1948
Truman
222
5,087
4.36
23
1949
Truman
144
3,397
4.24
24
1990
Bush 41
159
3,766
4.22
25
1962
Kennedy
270
6,423
4.20
26
1994
Clinton
308
7,393
4.17
27
1983
Reagan
230
5,562
4.14
28
1967
Johnson
293
7,108
4.12
29
1964
Johnson
130
3,182
4.09
30
1965
Johnson
178
4,403
4.04
31
1998
Clinton
294
7,302
4.03
32
2007
Bush 43
220
5,547
3.97
33
1970
Nixon
175
4,462
3.92
34
1988
Reagan
190
4,865
3.91
35
1968
Johnson
185
4,861
3.81
36
1972
Nixon
150
3,968
3.78
37
1941
Roosevelt
124
3,312
3.74
38
1974
Nixon
192
5,159
3.72
38
1961
Kennedy
192
5,163
3.72
40
1942
Roosevelt
130
3,506
3.71
41
2003
Bush 43
198
5,374
3.68
42
1982
Reagan
189
5,178
3.65
43
2005
Bush 43
184
5,053
3.64
44
1976
Ford
176
4,953
3.55
45
1943
Roosevelt
162
4,588
3.53
46
1959
Eisenhower
174
4,943
3.52
47
1958
Eisenhower
169
4,898
3.45
48
1939
Roosevelt
129
3,765
3.43
49
1966
Johnson
184
5,484
3.36
50
2004
Bush 43
173
5,172
3.34
51
1960
Eisenhower
182
5,615
3.24
52
1992
Bush 41
164
5,077
3.23
53
1957
Eisenhower
132
4,126
3.20
54
1977
Ford
148
4,710
3.14
54
1955
Eisenhower
227
7,234
3.14
56
1940
Roosevelt
100
3,198
3.13
57
1969
Johnson
126
4,099
3.07
58
1963
Kennedy
163
5,320
3.06
59
1975
Ford
123
4,112
2.99
60
1954
Eisenhower
177
5,970
2.96
61
1971
Nixon
125
4,483
2.79
62
1947
Truman
161
6,034
2.67
63
1953
Eisenhower
184
6,921
2.66
64
1944
Roosevelt
98
3,800
2.58
65
1934
Roosevelt
56
2,226
2.52
66
1935
Roosevelt
82
3,515
2.33
67
1936
Roosevelt
70
3,820
1.83
67
1937
Roosevelt
50
2,732
1.83
69
1938
Roosevelt
73
4,697
1.55
 
 
Total
13,404
345,563
3.88
Table indicates the percentage of first-person plural pronouns (e.g. our, ours, ourself, ourselves, us, let's, we, we'd, we'll, we're, we've) of the total words delivered in the address. Data compiled by Smart Politics. 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).

But if Obama's 2011 State of the Union address was the President's "unification" speech, it differs significantly from the one he delivered last year.

President Obama's 2010 State of the Union Address was the seventh heaviest first-person singular pronoun-laden speech since FDR, with 1.66 percent of the address containing pronouns such as "me," "myself," and "I."

Only six other speeches across the last 13 presidents had interjected a larger percentage of such self-referential pronouns: George H. Bush in 1992 (#1, 2.76 percent), Lyndon Johnson in 1969 (#2, 2.10 percent), Gerald Ford in 1977 (#3, 2.08 percent), Bill Clinton in 2000 (#4, 1.81 percent), Richard Nixon in 1974 (#5, 1.74 percent), and Ford in 1976 (#6, 1.68 percent).

For example, look at the contrast in Obama's introductory remarks on the economy in 2010 compared to the passage quoted above, and notice how he took a decidedly different rhetorical approach:

"So I know the anxieties that are out there right now. They're not new. These struggles are the reason I ran for president. These struggles are what I've witnessed for years in places like Elkhart, Indiana. Galesburg, Illinois. I hear about them in the letters that I read each night."

As well as when he tackled his pet project of health care reform:

"I didn't choose to tackle this issue to get some legislative victory under my belt. And by now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics. I took on health care because of the stories I've heard from Americans with pre-existing conditions whose lives depend on getting coverage..."

But in his 2011 Address - coming off an election two and a half months prior which saw a rebuke of the President's policies and the Democratic Party in a GOP landslide at the ballot box - Obama backed off dramatically from these first-person singular pronouns, cutting the total number by nearly half: from 120 in 2010 to just 73 this year (or just 1.06 percent of his speech).

And while Obama's 2011 Address still recorded the 24th largest percentage use of "me, myself, and I's" since FDR, it was only slightly above the 1.00 percent average across the last 13 presidents.

Percentage of First-Person Singular Pronouns in SOTU Addresses, 1934-Present

Rank
Year
President
Total
Words
%
1
1992
Bush 41
140
5,077
2.76
2
1969
Johnson
86
4,099
2.10
3
1977
Ford
98
4,710
2.08
4
2000
Clinton
164
9,073
1.81
5
1974
Nixon
90
5,159
1.74
6
1976
Ford
83
4,953
1.68
7
2010
Obama
120
7,237
1.66
8
1987
Reagan
59
3,799
1.55
9
1995
Clinton
141
9,181
1.54
10
1990
Bush 41
56
3,766
1.49
11
1999
Clinton
110
7,490
1.47
12
1994
Clinton
106
7,393
1.43
13
1998
Clinton
101
7,302
1.38
14
1996
Clinton
87
6,335
1.37
15
1975
Ford
56
4,112
1.36
16
2002
Bush 43
50
3,823
1.31
17
1988
Reagan
63
4,865
1.29
19
1968
Johnson
59
4,861
1.21
19
1997
Clinton
82
6,758
1.21
20
1986
Reagan
39
3,479
1.12
21
1978
Carter
51
4,587
1.11
22
1965
Johnson
48
4,403
1.09
23
1934
Roosevelt
24
2,226
1.08
24
2011
Obama
73
6,891
1.06
25
1971
Nixon
47
4,483
1.05
26
1935
Roosevelt
36
3,515
1.02
27
1967
Johnson
70
7,108
0.98
28
1936
Roosevelt
36
3,820
0.94
29
2005
Bush 43
47
5,053
0.93
29
1960
Eisenhower
52
5,615
0.93
31
1984
Reagan
45
4,952
0.91
32
1983
Reagan
48
5,562
0.86
33
1982
Reagan
42
5,178
0.81
33
1970
Nixon
36
4,462
0.81
35
1979
Carter
26
3,275
0.79
35
2004
Bush 43
41
5,172
0.79
35
1954
Eisenhower
47
5,970
0.79
38
1972
Nixon
31
3,968
0.78
38
1980
Carter
27
3,469
0.78
40
2008
Bush 43
44
5,730
0.77
41
1961
Kennedy
39
5,163
0.76
42
2006
Bush 43
40
5,303
0.75
42
1966
Johnson
41
5,484
0.75
44
1955
Eisenhower
53
7,234
0.73
45
1938
Roosevelt
34
4,697
0.72
46
1964
Johnson
22
3,182
0.69
47
1958
Eisenhower
33
4,898
0.67
47
2003
Bush 43
36
5,374
0.67
47
2007
Bush 43
37
5,547
0.67
50
1947
Truman
40
6,034
0.66
50
1944
Roosevelt
25
3,800
0.66
52
1950
Truman
32
5,126
0.62
53
1991
Bush 41
24
3,941
0.61
53
1962
Kennedy
39
6,423
0.61
53
1959
Eisenhower
30
4,943
0.61
56
1949
Truman
20
3,397
0.59
56
1937
Roosevelt
16
2,732
0.59
58
1957
Eisenhower
24
4,126
0.58
58
1952
Truman
31
5,336
0.58
60
1943
Roosevelt
26
4,588
0.57
61
1985
Reagan
21
4,226
0.50
62
1948
Truman
24
5,087
0.47
63
1953
Eisenhower
31
6,921
0.45
64
1951
Truman
15
3,989
0.38
65
1939
Roosevelt
14
3,765
0.37
65
1942
Roosevelt
13
3,506
0.37
67
1963
Kennedy
19
5,320
0.36
68
1940
Roosevelt
9
3,198
0.28
69
1941
Roosevelt
9
3,312
0.27
 
 
Total
3,458
345,563
1.00
Table indicates the percentage of first-person plural pronouns (e.g. I, I'd, I'll, I'm, I've, me, mine, my, myself) of the total words delivered in the address. Data compiled by Smart Politics. 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).

Overall, when examining the ratio of first-person plural vs. singular pronouns across all State of the Union addresses delivered by each respective president, Obama ranks just 8th out of 13, with 3.50 plural pronouns for every singular pronoun in his two speeches.

Harry Truman rates the highest, with an 8.40 to 1 ratio, followed by John Kennedy (6.44 to 1), Jimmy Carter (5.26 to 1), and George W. Bush (at 4.92 to 1).

Gerald Ford's language was the most self-referential, with just 1.89 first-person plural pronouns for every 1 singular pronoun spoken.

Ratio of First-Person Plural vs. Singular Pronouns in SOTU Addresses, 1934-Present

Rank
President
Plural %
Singular %
Ratio
1
Truman
4.69
0.56
8.40
2
Kennedy
3.70
0.57
6.44
3
Carter
4.83
0.92
5.26
4
Bush 43
4.03
0.82
4.92
5
Eisenhower
3.14
0.68
4.61
6
F. Roosevelt
2.74
0.62
4.44
7
Reagan
4.26
0.99
4.31
8
Obama
4.78
1.37
3.50
9
L. Johnson
3.76
1.12
3.36
10
Nixon
3.55
1.13
3.15
11
Clinton
4.44
1.48
3.01
12
Bush 41
3.91
1.72
2.27
13
Ford
3.25
1.72
1.89
 
Average
3.88
1.00
3.88
Data compiled by Smart Politics. 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).

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