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"My Message is Simple": Obama's SOTU Written at 8th Grade Level for Third Straight Year

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Obama's SOTU addresses have the lowest average Flesch-Kincaid score of any modern president; Obama owns three of the six lowest-scoring addresses since FDR

barackobama05.jpgFor the third consecutive State of the Union Address, Barack Obama spoke in clear, plain terms.

And for the third straight Address, the President's speech was written at an eighth-grade level.

In Obama's own words: "My message is simple."

But was it too simplistic?

A Smart Politics study of the 70 orally delivered State of the Union Addresses since 1934 finds the text of Obama's 2012 speech to have tallied the third lowest score on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, at an 8.4 grade level.

Obama also delivered the second lowest scoring address in 2011 (at an 8.1 grade level) and the sixth lowest in 2010 (at an 8.8 grade level)

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 70 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 and Eisenhower in 1956).

The vast majority of State of the Union speeches were delivered in writing prior to FDR.

Each of Obama's three addresses are among only seven of 70 in the modern era that were written shy of a 9th grade level, and among the six that have averaged less than 17 words per sentence.

Obama's 2012 and 2010 addresses averaged 16.6 words per sentence with his 2011 address coming in at 16.8.

Other low-scoring addresses on the Flesch-Kincaid scale over the decades are George H.W. Bush's 1992 address, Harry Truman's 1951 and 1952 addresses, and Lyndon Johnson's 1965 address.

Obama's speeches are a continuation of a general pattern that finds as State of the Union Addresses have perhaps become more and more political, they have been written more and more simplistically.

With three addresses under his belt, President Obama has the lowest average Flesch-Kincaid score for State of the Union addresses of any modern president. Obama's average grade-level score of 8.4 is more than two grades lower than the 11.1 grade average for the other 67 addresses written by his 12 predecessors.

But even though the last five presidents have the lowest five collective scores on this readability test, Obama's speeches were written at a much lower grade level than those recorded by Ronald Reagan (10.3) and George W. Bush (10.4).

The highest scoring presidents are John Kennedy at 13.2, Dwight Eisenhower at 12.8, FDR at 12.5, and Richard Nixon at 11.6.

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

Words per sentence
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level
John Kennedy
Dwight Eisenhower
Franklin Roosevelt
Richard Nixon
Gerald Ford
Jimmy Carter
Harry Truman
Lyndon Johnson
George W. Bush
Ronald Reagan
Bill Clinton
George H.W. Bush
Barack Obama
Data compiled by Smart Politics.

Dragging down Obama's Flesch-Kincaid score are the series of short sentences written - perhaps for dramatic effect - on a number of policy issues.

On the state of the American auto industry:

"We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back."

On the need to rebuild the nation's infrastructure:

"So much of America needs to be rebuilt. We've got crumbling roads and bridges. A power grid that wastes too much energy."

On the importance of passing a payroll tax break extension:

"There are plenty of ways to get this done. So let's agree right here, right now: No side issues. No drama. Pass the payroll tax cut without delay."

On remembering the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden:

"All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves."

And, generally, on the 'greatness' of America:

"No one built this country on their own. This Nation is great because we built it together. This Nation is great because we worked as a team. This Nation is great because we get each other's backs."

Of course, depending on one's view of the intended audience of these addresses, a simply written speech such as the one delivered by Obama Tuesday evening might be viewed positively or negatively.

If the audience is Congress, as was the original, intended purpose of the speech, then brief policy outlines, episodic illustrations, and short sound bites are probably not very instructive.

If, however, the intended audience is the American people, then perhaps simply-written speeches - in the age of Twitter and texting - are arguably more effective ways to translate the president's vision of the State of the Union to the average citizen.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for Orally Delivered State of the Union Addresses, 1934-2012

Words per sentence
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level
Roosevelt 1934
Roosevelt 1937
Roosevelt 1938
Eisenhower 1955
Roosevelt 1935
Kennedy 1961
Eisenhower 1960
Eisenhower 1957
Roosevelt 1940
Kennedy 1962
Eisenhower 1954
Eisenhower 1953
Truman 1947
Kennedy 1963
Nixon 1974
Ford 1977
Bush 2005
Roosevelt 1939
Eisenhower 1958
Truman 1950
Nixon 1971
Johnson 1964
Eisenhower 1959
Reagan 1983
Roosevelt 1936
Carter 1980
Carter 1979
Roosevelt 1941
Nixon 1972
Nixon 1970
Roosevelt 1944
Reagan 1988
Ford 1975
Truman 1949
Roosevelt 1943
Reagan 1982
Johnson 1966
Bush 2006
Truman 1948
Johnson 1969
Ford 1976
Johnson 1967
Bush 2003
Johnson 1968
Bush 2008
Bush 2004
Clinton 1999
Carter 1978
Reagan 1987
Reagan 1986
Bush 2007
Reagan 1985
Clinton 1998
Roosevelt 1942
Clinton 1997
Reagan 1984
Clinton 2000
Clinton 1996
Clinton 1995
Bush 2002
Bush 1991
Clinton 1994
Bush 1990
Truman 1952
Obama 2010
Truman 1951
Johnson 1965
Obama 2012
Obama 2011
Bush 1992
Table compiled by Smart Politics.

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  • Too simplistic? No.

    A low Flesch-Kincaid score -- particulary in a speech -- is always a good thing.

  • The modern State of the Union address is actually an address to the American people, with members of Congress and other attendees mostly serving as props. As such, a lower readability score is actually desirable. But while Obama should be commended for speaking in a manner that is accessible to the widest possible spectrum of voters, this does poke a huge hole into supporters' contention that Obama's opponents oppose him only because he is so sophisticated and they are incapable of understanding him.

  • Very likely the issue of clarity and the expectations of the viewing audience influenced the crafting of the speech.

    There is another issue to consider, however. Obama presents as an educated and somewhat intellectual figure - an acclaimed author, a former law professor, a dazzling speaker, a knowledgeable and sophisticated man in general. His opponents have used that to paint him as out of touch. And there is a considerable component of resentment toward black men who appear to be "putting on airs", always ready to be stoked by Republicans as part of their general strategy of racial division. Obama wears his learning lightly and has consistently avoided ostentation - to a degree that often seems as if he is avoiding triggering overt or covert racist tropes.

    I strongly suspect that his public speech patterns, when not aimed at elevation or inspiration, are deliberately calculated to minimize resentment, and that that is a particular calculation made in light of the persistently racist tone of his opposition, and a perception of what it takes to govern as a black man in America.

  • A low Flesch-Kincaid score translates to a boring speech. A good speech should be as interesting to read as it is to listen to.

    Mr Obama is an enemy of the sleep-aid industry, as he reduces the need for their products.

  • Obama's speech is simple, because his arguments are simple-minded. His writers realize that the core to whom is is appealing is mainly in the sub-mean part of the population. They know that the public will not read the speech, but will only hear what he reads off the teleprompter. They know that the public would not understand a sophisticated argument, because most listeners lack any understanding of political economy. Most of the public are unable even to grasp the meaning of percentages, or to distinguish between a rate of taxation and the amount paid. So it is safe to have him say that a secretary pays less than a millionaire. It is literally untrue, but most listeners will not know the difference, “in the primitive simplicity of their minds.”

    He is advertising. That is the level of speech he is using. Short sentences.

  • Interesting... are you saying this is a bad thing? Are you aware your article rates 8.85 on the FK scale?

  • > Are you aware your article rates 8.85 on the FK scale?

    Actually, if you remove Obama's many quotes (of short sentences) which are cited in this report, it has a 12.0 Flesch-Kincaid grade-level rating, coming in at 24.6 words per sentence.

  • The obvious explanation is that Zer0 has a comprehensive reading level of about an 8th grader and since he has to read it off a teleprompter, the speech must be written for him on an 8th grade level. If not, he would badly mangle his speech even with the teleprompter.

  • he kept it simple so you could understand it

  • People will rise or descend to expectations. Pandering to them is never a good thing.

  • This is so that their Base understands...........he would look foolish if he brought out Paper & Crayons to explain to them,yes ?

  • Zero has to dumb down his words for his wanting, dumbed down, short attention span base.

    Even if it the same, near verbatim load of crap Zero has been slinging since his campaign for the Illinois senate. His presidential campaign and every SOTU speech Zero has been giving since taking the White House.

  • "He kept it simple so we could understand it"? PLEASE! The American people understand and are not idiots. The only people who think they are are the far left elitists, like BHO. He kept is simple and vague because he does not have an idea that majority of Americans agree with. So, he threw vague statements and according to AP, lied quite a bit in the speech. The great orator...my foot!

  • what? that's retarded. what if the score was 1? maybe that's a "good thing" for netting the highschool-dropout crowd of typical democratic voters, but I fail to see how the president babbling like a child on television is a "good thing..."

  • Whatever its score, the more disturbing issue to me was his choice of words. Words like "got" and "cops" show a lack of formality called for by the occasion. The whole speech seemed too conversational and not very presidential.

  • This is just more proof of how super scary smart 0bama is.

  • an 8th grade level is STILL too high for the voters Obama wants to reach.

  • This is fascinating data. Thanks for posting it. I think some of the analysis is weak though. I'm surprised that at the end, it entertains the idea that this address might intend Congress as the audience. I find that humorous because Obama has clearly taken his "bipartisan gloves" off in most of his dealings with Republicans. They're clearly not interested in what he has to say. This is intended (well, 99%) for the American public.

    The major patterns here deserve closer examination because it says a lot about our society over time. Of the top 35 of the 70 Flesch-Kincaid scores shown, only 7 of those occurred in addresses from 1974 (the time midpoint) and later. There are so many interesting societal trends to explore to look for explanations. Everything from communication technologies to social values can be part of the answer here. For social values, I'm thinking that in the late 50's and early 60's speaking at a rating of 12.0 was probably admired by most voters. Being perceived as smart was OK and one wasn't dismissed as "too professorial". It's only in recent decades that likeabilty has been boiled down to , "Who would you rather have a beer with?"

    So I think this is good stuff, but more for the long term insight into society and politics. As for the narrow view of Obama I think the answer is pretty evident. Throughout his presidency Obamas approval ratings have been significantly higher for college grads and post-grads than for high shool grads (or lower). Is it surprising that he might use language intended to reach them better?

  • The only Obama education we hear about is what we are told from the media and there is not one iota of proof of any of it. As a matter of fact we know nothing that's provable about this mans past. We are left with a few choices, some of it is true, all of it is true or none of it is true. Take your pick. His inability to talk spontaneously is a clue along with his dependency on the prompters, of all things, at a middle school? His actions speak louder than his words. There are those that can tell us of his every mistaken promise so it would be redundant to review them here. His street English is another give away to his academic training. America made a mistake putting him in office and has learned a valuable lesson and I hope we correct that mistake this coming election.

  • Is that 8th grade level 10 years ago or 8th grade level now? Because 8th grade today is roughly the 4th grade equivalent of ten years ago - or was it 8th grade ten years ago, which would make it 12th grade today?

    As for simplicity - think of the American audience, which has been dumbed down so much.

  • It's not just Obama. Except for the last commenter the author and all commenters has missed the statistically strong inverse correlation between the year that the President was giving the address and the score. I'm an engineer and don't have to graph it to see that aside from Harry Truman (gotta have an outlier in every data set) there's pretty much a linear decrease over time. Perhaps the author should graph this and reconsider his headline. Something like "Obama's SOTU Written at 8th Grade Level for Third Straight Year as Decades-Long Trend Continues" seems more in order. This trend is probably correlated with the rise of television and more recently the internet which, in the hands of bloggers and youtube users has greatly increased the usage of out of context "sound bites". Regardless, why is this even news?

  • > Except for the last commenter the author and all commenters has missed the statistically
    > strong inverse correlation between the year that the President was giving the address and > the score.

    I, the author, did not miss this correlation. From the report above (emphasis added):

    "But even though the last five presidents have the lowest five collective scores on this readability test, Obama's speeches were written at a much lower grade level than those recorded by Ronald Reagan (10.3) and George W. Bush (10.4)."

  • Perhaps everyone reading this already knows, but oft quoted average reading level for an American adult is between 8th and 9th grade. I assume that indicates something about listening comprehension as well.

    The AVERAGE - 50% of Americans are below that.

    Also, this is interesting:


  • Oops. Sorry to spam but the average means average of scores so 50% of Americans are not necessarily below that (median). Oh but they're close with such a large sample. Anyway, thanks again Eric for the write up to your great data.

  • Since longer sentences yeild higher Flesch-Kincaid "scores," it makes a big difference what's considered a sentence. The three sentences below, for example, could easily and correctly be analyzed as just one sentence.

    "We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back."

    After (comma placement quarrels aside):
    "We bet on American workers, we bet on American ingenuity, and tonight the American auto industry is back."

    That said, this is interesting data and does point to trends in the SOTU address and political discourse in general.

  • Anyone notice that the two supposedly dumb cowboy presidents, Ronald Reagan & George W. Bush rate well above The Won. And to the excuse that zer0 is just lowering the rhetoric because we all are getting dumber every year, the last address by W in 2008 was rated 10.2.

  • I have a question about F-K. It's one thing to apply it seriatim to students in order to assess their progress, or to compare them to their cohort. But it seems to be another thing to apply it to someone who has completed their education and who obviously has the ability to write or speak pieces that would score very high or very low on the F-L scale, depending on his intent. My question, without being too rude, is--so what? What material result is derived from marking the Presidents according to a scale of language complexity? It might be useful if a President seemed to have a hard time communicating, which might correlate with a very, very low or very, very high score.

    It also seems to me that scoring on sentence length and the frequency of polysyllables ignores the semantic content of the communication. I can write a short phrase. It may not have long words. Does that mean I am like a kid? I could write something in very long sentences, full of hypotaxis, polysyllables, and so forth, but it could be nonsense, or deal with a trivial subject. On the other hand, a very meaningful subject can be communicated with short sentences and a large number of monosyllables. I must admit that this is first time I've come across your scale, so I should take some time to read more about what you do, and why.

    In the meantime, could you score this? It's full of monosyllables, but due to the paratactic arrangement, if viewed as a single sentence, it is pretty long. (I learned it in about 6th grade.)

    By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
    Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
    Here once the embattled farmers stood,
    And fired the shot heard round the world.

  • Hey Ben maybe you'll get to like the Air Force. Zooming all over the sky and shouting ROGER and WILCO and everything. Maybe it won't be so bad.

  • There is only one logical explanation. Obama has the mind of the average American 8th grade student. It is no wonder America is such a mess.

  • > In the meantime, could you score this? It's full of monosyllables, but due to the paratactic
    > arrangement, if viewed as a single sentence, it is pretty long. (I learned it in about 6th
    > grade.)

    > By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
    > Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
    > Here once the embattled farmers stood,
    > And fired the shot heard round the world.

    The Flesch-Kincaid score is Grade 9.2 for that paragraph.

  • You use the word "simplistic", but I do not think it means what you think it means. Oversimplifying a message, "dumbing it down", risks insulting the intelligence of the listener and can be tedious to hear. "Simplistic" implies simplification to the point of being meaningless or just plain wrong- that is, sacrificing accuracy or truth for the sake of comprehensibility, failing to go to the level of complexity where the issue lies. Obama's message, as he said, was simple. Therefore, to express it in simple language is apropos. The same F-K score during the debate about ACA, with its inherent complexity, would have been "simplistic".

    I realize this is pedantic, but that's kind of where F-K lives, isn't it?

  • Newspaper stories are written at an eight-grade level, because many Americans can't read above it.

    "There is only one logical explanation. Obama has the mind of the average American 8th grade student. It is no wonder America is such a mess."

    He graduated from Harvard, dearie. Did you?

  • It was done that way so the typical, Republican, low information voter, could understand it.

  • Sarcasm I hope? Straightforward wording and short sentence lengths don't equate to stupid or even simple ideas. Honestly, I think Strunk and White would appreciate of President Obama's direct methods of communication.

  • (The above was intended as a response to Crissy Bakers comment, "There is only one logical explanation. Obama has the mind of the average American 8th grade student. It is no wonder America is such a mess.")

  • Thanks, Eric. Didn't mean to diss your article; actually, the long-term trend is the most interesting aspect of this data--from 12's down to about 8. This correlates somewhat with the change in the way most people get their political news and messgaes--from printed word to spoken word. It may be that Presidents (and their speechwriters) have gradually moved from presenting a written speech to one that tries to make more of a visceral, rhetorical impact.

  • I believe that the difference with the F-K analysis is the means by which those sentences are delivered. Is the short sentence serving as a vehicle for a more conclusive thought? Or, are all the sentences short?

    An example of this would be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a Dream" speech. In his speech, his shorter sentences are eloquently placed within the speech so as to provide emphasis. I'm afraid that zerO does not follow that provision within his speech and tends to say a lot of words, but at the same time, very little.

    It's the difference between:

    "The dog ran. He ran fast. It moved its feet a lot."


    "The greyhound stretched its limbs, pulling the ground under him faster and faster until the grassy path became a blur beneath his paws."

  • > Are you aware your article rates 8.85 on the FK scale?

    >>Actually, if you remove Obama's many quotes (of short sentences) which are cited in this report, it has a 12.0 Flesch-Kincaid grade-level rating, coming in at 24.6 words per sentence.

    Haha! Awesome. I think we just found the SOTU target audience.

  • If he doesn't reach tea-partiers, they won't vote for him and other Democrats. That he reaches them doesn't mean they will - but, if he doesn't reach them, it's a cinch they won't.
    The argument is pointless.
    The speech is on point and simply eloquent, rather than complexly irrelevant.

  • well since the average American is a stone cold moron it's not surprising that the POTUS has to speak on their level, as a physician who has to interact with a wide variety of people every day it's never ceases to amaze me how really, really stupid at least half of Americans are...hell if he want Teabaggers to get it he'd have to go down to about a 5th grade level, and if he wanted Texans to understand any of it he'd have to go all the way down to Rick Perry stupid, and I'm afraid even Barry won't stoop that low...srsly 'Idiocracy' has truly come to 'Merka, and it ain't gettin' any better!

  • I totally agree with "joemomma". Having taught middle schoolers for 33 years, I understand the President's reason for using such a narrative. The average comprehension level of Americans is, unfortunately, very low, much lower than the rest of the world's educated societies.

  • Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich can also speak in plain language:

    Mitt: "You're just jealous because I'm rich."

    Newt: "I will take away food stamps from all those black people."

  • Another fact overlooked by several of the more resentful commentators is that Plain Language is becoming the trend for all companies, communicators and marketers who want to be successful in the 21st century.

    The ability to simplify and speak plainly -- far from being a sign that someone is ignorant -- is actually a communication strength.

    According to many business standards, writers are instructed to write for the 8th grade level of comprehension, except for South Carolina, for which a 4th grade level is recommended.

    For those who lament (to feel or express sorrow or regret for) how dumb people are becoming, perhaps you might want to have a President who chooses to invest in education of our young people.

  • What is most notable about Obama's rhetoric is his excessive use of the first person pronouns in this and every other address: He uses 'I' , 'my', and 'me' eighty-three times.
    It really IS "all about me" for his 'O'liness.

  • You know what they call fella's in the Air Force?!! Air Man! AYUH MAAN!! Like sumpun out of a dang funnie book! --Thanks needed that--USAF, Retired. Typically write at about 10.4 or 10.5 when turning in college papers. hmmmmm.

  • By now you will have seen this:

    Talking down to America

    '... let's take the complaint at face value. Mr Obama's speech was relatively simple, more simple than most State of the Union addresses. However, there's no normative weight to the Flesch-Kincaid grade level. The score is a function of how long the sentences are and how many syllables the words have. It's a weak proxy for accessibility, not substance or value.

    I just tested a couple of recent articles in The Economist—which I hope we can all agree is a reasonably well-written publication—and found grade levels of 10.3, 10.6, and 10.8. George Orwell's "Why I Write": 9.5. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": 7.4, suggesting that the Fleisch-Kincaid formula isn't that sensitive to context. In any case, such comparisons are a little silly; no one judges political speeches on their syntactic complexity. (Reagan's address to the nation after the Challenger disaster: 5.7.)

    No one, that is, except Mr Obama's critics. It's notably that he's also caught flak for speaking at too high of a grade level; after his speech on the BP oil spill registered a 9.8, he was dinged for being too "professorial." As my colleague noted then, the Flesch-Kincaid score is a "mindless bit of math," insensitive to meaning or intention. '

  • Obama is just brilliant.

  • Especially when speaking to simple people - Obama's voter base.

  • I'm reminded of a mediocre movie... "Idiocracy" The dumbing down of our culture so as not to offend those that fail to have the capacity to comprehend. You know... his voter base!

  • Spoken by a liberal with no intelligence in mind.

  • Gee Johhny Naa, Obama has taken his bipartisan gloves off. This is why I can't stand liberals. During the writing of the health care law, it was crafted behind closed doors without any republicans invited. Very nonpartisan. It amazes me how many total asses are running around in this country. Where do all you idiots come from. I guess this means that George Bush's '92 speech was the tops of them all since it was the lowest on the list. Of course I can hear all you idiots screaming no way. You know what is really pathetic, it is the fact that any one of you is allowed to vote.

  • I think this mostly has to do with what has been learned about how to most effectively communicate with a large population of people.

    Obviously as President, Obama can't just be talking to college graduates - he has to be speaking to everyone in a way that they can understand.

  • These comments attacking Obama's voter base are quite ridiculous considering that Obama tends to do very well in polling (and exit polls) among those with the most education.

    In fact I looked at 2008 exit polling and Obama won the post-grad demographic (the most highly educated) 58% to 40% (quite a bit better than his 53% to 46% overall win.)

    It just goes to show you that these people will attack Obama no matter what he does.

    One day he's an "elitist" who speaks like a professor... the next day he's dumbing it down because his supporters are "simple."

  • Yeah, that's the only explanation.... wow

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