According to Smart Politics, President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address was written at an eighth grade reading level.
In fact, his last three State of the Unions were all written at an eighth grade reading level and rank as three of the six most simplistically written addresses since the Great Depression. Though some may see this as a negative, I see it as a positive.
The methodology used to rank the addresses is the Flesch-Kincaid test which, according to Slate, is a “test is designed to assess the readability level of written text, with a formula that translates the score to a U.S. grade level.” The reason Obama’s oratory isn’t as sophisticated as past presidents is simple, “Shorter sentences and sentences incorporating more monosyllabic words yield lower scores.”
Some of the sentences that killed his score were "We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back.” And “so much of America needs to be rebuilt. We've got crumbling roads and bridges. A power grid that wastes too much energy." These sentences are easy to comprehend and immediately get to the point, exactly what an address should be doing.
Smart Politics has run the tests on almost every address going back to 1934 and concluded that “President Obama has the lowest average Flesch-Kincaid score for State of the Union addresses of any modern president.”
John F Kennedy's speeches have the highest reading comprehension level; all of his addresses were delivered at a 12th grade reading level. Following him is Dwight Eisenhower at 11.9 and Richard Nixon at 11.5. Bringing up the rear are Barack Obama at 8.4, George H.W Bush at 8.6, and Bill Clinton at 9.5.
In an interesting turn of events, George W. Bush addresses rank two full grades ahead of Obama’s eloquence at 10.4, in spite of his many “Bushisms” throughout his two terms. George W. Bush is tied with Lyndon Johnson.
The article points out that if the audience is Congress, as his repeated instructions to send legislation to his desk may have indicated that it was “not very instructive.” If the audience is the American people, which is also the case since this is an election cycle, “simply written speeches … are more effective.”
In the grand scheme of things, a Flesch-Kincaid score is fairly irrelevant. If nothing else, it’s interesting to know that there may be something more than eloquence that lends to his reputation as a gifted public speaker: simplicity. His simplistic speaking style makes it easier for the masses to grasp the concepts he tries to convey. This can only be a good thing in an age of Headline News, social media, and ever-waning attention spans.
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