Obama's State of the Unions Less 'Intelligent' Than Bush's

A researcher finds that Obama speaks at a lower grade level than Bush.

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Tonight, President Obama will deliver the 221st State of the Union address. Yet despite its regularity, numerous traditions surrounding the address have changed. Until 1934, for example, the speech was delivered in December, not January. The medium of transmission has changed as well, from paper to radio to television and Web streaming. According to the Congressional Research Service, the address has not always been known by the same name; the "President's Annual Message to Congress" only became the "State of the Union" in the mid-to-late 1940s. And data shows what may be the start of a new trend: our most recent presidents have been among the easiest to understand. [Read A Brief History of the State of the Union Address.]

Dr. Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the University of Minnesota's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance and founder of the University's SmartPolitics blog, has analyzed State of the Union addresses since 1934 to determine their grade reading levels. To do this, he used the Flesch-Kincaid scale, which takes into account the number of words per sentence and number of syllables per word. The results show that Obama, despite his reputation for erudition, ranks among the modern presidents with the lowest average State of the Union grade reading level. Kennedy, meanwhile, ranks highest, with all three of his addresses at a level of 12.0--the highest possible score on the scale.

Below are the 13 most recent presidents with their average State of the Union grade reading levels:

Rank President Average Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (oral addresses only)
1 John F. Kennedy 12.0
2 Dwight Eisenhower 11.9
3 Richard Nixon 11.5
4 Franklin D. Roosevelt 11.4
5 Gerald Ford 11.2
6 Jimmy Carter 10.8
7 Harry Truman 10.5
8 Lyndon Johnson 10.4
8 George W. Bush 10.4
10 Ronald Reagan 10.3
11 Bill Clinton 9.5
12 Barack Obama 8.8
13 George H. W. Bush 8.6

The results, which put George W. Bush well ahead of both Obama and Clinton, contradict popular narratives about those presidents: Bush was often lampooned during his presidency as inarticulate, while Rhodes Scholar Clinton and law professor Obama have been praised for their elocution.

But Ostermeier says that the scores reflect far more than a speech's "intelligence"; they can be seen as a sign of the purpose of a particular State of the Union. "There's a lot of these shorter, direct sentences" in recent speeches, he says, that seem designed to "rally the troops and have the members of your party stand up and cheer." Recent addresses, like Obama's last State of the Union, he says, have many of these concise, simple lines that generate the lengthy standing ovations that have become a hallmark of the annual address.

Grade level scores can also be influenced by a speech's content. "Bush's speeches were much more focused on foreign policy. His last State of the Union was over 55 percent foreign policy, whereas Obama's was only 10 percent [in his speech to a joint session of Congress] in 2009 and 14 percent [in his State of the Union address] in 2010. So perhaps it's easier to talk in simpler terms when it's about things people can grasp better," like taxes and the economy, says Ostermeier.

It may be, then, that recession is responsible for Obama's comparatively low grade level score; his 2010 State of the Union used the monosyllabic "jobs" 23 times. Given the stubborn unemployment rate, this year's speech may once again rank among the simpler State of the Union addresses in recent memory.