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'Get It Done': Slogans Drop Obama's SOTU Address to 9th Grade Reading Level

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All four of the president's State of the Union addresses rank in the Bottom 10 in presidential history for Flesch-Kincaid grade level readability scores

barackobama05.jpgWhile delivering remarks on climate change during his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, Barack Obama stated, "No single event makes a trend."

However, after four State of the Union Addresses, there has definitely been a trend in these high profile speeches written by the president and his team.

For while the emphasis on which policies are highlighted may change a bit from year to year, the linguistic backbone of the president's addresses has remained the same: short sentences with short words.

And a fair amount of slogans.

A Smart Politics review of the 92 orally delivered State of the Union Addresses since George Washington finds that each of President Obama's addresses rank in the Bottom 10 on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, with his 2013 address written at a 9th 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.

From Thomas Jefferson through William Taft, every State of the Union message was delivered in written form to Congress.

President Wilson then delivered six oral addresses during his two terms to the nation's lawmakers with Warren Harding delivering two in this manner and Calvin Coolidge one. Herbert Hoover presented all of his annual messages in written form.

It was not until Franklin Roosevelt that the oral form of communication became the standard, although there have been five written addresses since FDR (by Truman in 1946 and 1953, Eisenhower in 1961, Nixon in 1973, and Carter in 1981) as well as two addresses that were delivered orally, but not by the President himself (Roosevelt in 1945 and Eisenhower in 1956).

Obama's 2013 address continues the pattern that has emerged from his previous three addresses.

The president's speech was written at a 9.2 grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid test (tied for the 10th lowest score all time) - slightly higher than his first three delivered in 2010 (8.8, 6th lowest), 2011 (8.1, 2nd lowest), and 2012 (8.4, 3rd lowest).

Each of Obama's SOTUs also rank in the Bottom 10 in terms of the number of words used per sentence, with his 2013 speech coming in at 17.5, or four fewer words per sentence than the average orally delivered SOTU address since the 1900s.

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

And what does a 17-word sentence look like?

It just so happens one Obama's most memorable lines came in at that length:

"Our government shouldn't make promises we cannot keep - but we must keep the promises we've already made."

Obama's speeches also continue the general trend that finds as State of the Union Addresses have perhaps become more and more political - with a greater eye on the television audience than the members of Congress in the room - they have been written with more simple language.

With four addresses under his belt, President Obama is now tied with George H.W. Bush for the lowest average Flesch-Kincaid score for State of the Union addresses of any president with an 8.6 grade level.

The addresses by Obama and the elder Bush are more than two grades lower than the 11.2 average score of all 80 oral addresses delivered by presidents of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

(The oral messages to Congress delivered by George Washington and John Adams from 1790 to 1800 came in at Flesch-Kincaid readability scores of 17.6 and 18.0 respectively and are not included in the above data).

The highest scoring presidents on the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale for orally delivered State of the Union messages since the 20th Century are Warren Harding at 14.4, Woodrow Wilson at 13.9, and John Kennedy at 13.2.

Average Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level by President for Orally Delivered State of the Union Addresses Since Woodrow Wilson

Rank
President
# Oral Addresses
Words per sentence
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level
1
Warren Harding
2
25.3
14.4
2
Woodrow Wilson
6
28.5
13.9
3
John Kennedy
3
24.4
13.2
4
Dwight Eisenhower
7
20.9
12.8
5
Franklin Roosevelt
11
24.4
12.5
6
Richard Nixon
4
23.5
11.6
7
Calvin Coolidge
1
17.8
11.3
8
Gerald Ford
3
19.3
11.2
9
Jimmy Carter
3
19.7
10.8
10
Harry Truman
6
19.0
10.6
11
Lyndon Johnson
6
20.3
10.4
11
George W. Bush
7
19.0
10.4
13
Ronald Reagan
7
19.6
10.3
14
Bill Clinton
7
19.0
9.5
15
George H.W. Bush
3
17.4
8.6
15
Barack Obama
4
16.9
8.6
Data compiled by Smart Politics.

Part of what drags down the Flesch-Kincaid scores in speeches like Obama's Tuesday night, is the repetition of slogans throughout the address.

Such slogans are usually constructed in sentences that are a few words long - with mostly monosyllabic words - and are frequently peppered into the speech to deliver a thematic punch and perhaps the hope of creating a memorable moment.

During his speech Tuesday evening, Obama's most repeated slogan involved "getting things done" on a variety of policy issues:

"We can get this done." (Two times, on tax reform and his Partnership to Rebuild America).

"Now is the time to get it done." (Two times on comprehensive immigration reform).

"Let's get it done." (Two times, on immigration)

"We can get that done." (On creating manufacturing hubs).

"In other words, we know what needs to be done." (On immigration).

"So let's get this done." (On immigration)

"We should be able to get that done." (On raising the federal minimum wage).

"This is something we should be able to get done on a bipartisan basis." (On fighting cyber threats).

Sometimes a slogan is repeated several times within the context of a singular issue for even greater dramatic effect.

On the issue of gun control policies advocated by Obama on Tuesday evening, the president hammered home the slogan, "They deserve a vote."

Obama delivered a variation on that phrase 10 times during the gun control portion of his speech:

"Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress."

"But these proposals deserve a vote."

"They deserve a vote." (Three times)

"Gabby Giffords deserves a vote."

"The families of Newtown deserve a vote."

"The families of Aurora deserve a vote."

"They deserve a simple vote." (Two times)

But does the use of such slogans with short sentences and short words mean the president delivered an ineffective speech?

Not necessarily.

Interspersing several short sentences can have a strategic, dramatic effect in a long speech.

The question, in a historical analysis such as this, is how Obama's speeches differ from his predecessors (and why).

Interestingly, the president's linguistic choices in his major addresses also stand in sharp contrast to the most famous address delivered by his wife.

The First Lady's celebrated speech at the Democratic National Convention on September 4th of last year was written at a 12.8 grade level - more than 3.5 grade levels above the next highest speech of the 10 previous prepared remarks delivered by wives of presidential nominees and some 7+ grade levels ahead of Ann Romney who gave a speech written at just a 5.8 grade level at the Republican National Convention.

Meanwhile, the president's address to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last September was written at just an 8.2 grade level - or 4.5 grade levels lower than the First Lady's.

Not all of Obama's major addresses since becoming president have ranked quite this low, however.

The president's 2009 Inaugural address was written at a 9.3 grade level with his 2013 Inaugural coming in at 10.0.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for Orally Delivered State of the Union Addresses, 1913-2013

Presidential Address
Words per sentence
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level
Wilson 1916
33.1
17.1
Roosevelt 1934
30.1
15.7
Wilson 1915
30.9
15.0
Harding 1921
25.8
14.6
Roosevelt 1937
26.3
14.5
Roosevelt 1938
27.5
14.3
Harding 1922
24.9
14.2
Wilson 1918
29.6
14.1
Wilson 1913
28.4
14.1
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
Wilson 1917
25.7
12.3
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
Coolidge 1923
17.8
11.3
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
Wilson 1914
23.0
10.9
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
Obama 2013
17.5
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 2012
16.6
8.4
Obama 2011
16.8
8.1
Bush 1992
15.8
7.5
Average
21.2
11.2
Table compiled by Smart Politics.

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2 Comments


  • Obama is a Constitutional lawyer. Bush has a degree from Harvard?, or is it Yale?
    I think the level of speech writing says a lot more about the audiences than the Presidents.
    Is this just an attempt to show us how our government is doing when it comes to education, or are you just trying to smear Obama...

  • To reach the majority of Americans, you message needs to be at a third grade level!

  • Leave a comment


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