Textbook Obama

Photo: From Left, Charles Ommanney/Getty Images (2); Gene Forte/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Chris Honros/Getty Images

On Tuesday, President Obama spoke to schoolchildren; on Wednesday, to Congress. The easy punch line (same grade level, guys?) raises a real question: How does this president, whose comments on health care in particular had been criticized for lacking a clear take-home message, pitch his language? Does he strategically streamline his explanations for different audiences? To find out, we called upon science, in the form of Paul J. J. Payack, “president and chief word analyst” at an Austin, Texas, trend-watching outfit called the Global Language Monitor.

What Payack found when Obama’s speeches bubbled through his software was that the president didn’t treat Congress like a bunch of kids. His health-care speech clocks in at 9.0, indicating a ninth-grade reading level; the classroom speech, at 6.6. Those two figures more or less bookend the range for contemporary oration. Both Presidents Bush tended to fall around grade 7, as did Obama’s “Yes, We Can” speech. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” comes in at 8.8.

There’s plenty of room for sophisticated ideas at that level. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is sixth-grade material. So is The Hobbit. The Gettysburg Address rates a 9.1. That’s low for the nineteenth century, when florid oratory was in vogue—the Lincoln-Douglas debates took place at an eleventh-grade level, rarely heard today. “You can imagine how they’d talk—three, four hours long,” Payack says. “It really changed with the advent of radio.”

Nor is ninth-grade language too tough for a mainstream audience. Payack says that Ronald Reagan, the master of folksy explanation, is Obama’s closest match among recent presidents, with speeches that usually come in around 9 or 10. “The word was that he spoke in sound bites, but they’re very well-crafted sound bites.” The two presidents may differ in affect, content, and approach—Obama sometimes seems to develop his ideas through the very process of turning them into oratory, whereas Reagan more or less only had one idea—but not in linguistic complexity. Indeed, Obama has often expressed admiration for the Gipper’s ability to frame issues.

Payack explains that his proprietary algorithm is a variant of the standard Flesch Reading Ease Test, which is performed on many textbooks and educational materials: “It analyzes words per sentence, syllables per word, things of that nature. The theory is that the more complex the structure, the more syllables per word, the more difficult it is to understand.” Polysyllabicism and subclauses add complexity, and skew the score toward older readers. “To reach the greatest number of people, to communicate most crisply, to make sure your idea moves from your mind to someone else’s, you should speak in short sentences.” (Representative Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” achieves a prekindergarten rating.) For comparison, a Maureen Dowd column from last week was a 10.8, a Paul Krugman piece was a 12.5, and the story you’re reading now has a Flesch score of ninth grade.

Payack says he was struck by the level of craft behind Obama’s speech to the kids. “Our opinion is that they put that through every test they could,” he says, growing animated. “It’s perfect. The numbers are amazing—he’s talking to a junior-high audience, and it comes in exactly at mid–sixth grade. That’s gotta be by design. One of the things you look for is how much passive voice is used. In political speeches, passive voice is sometimes very big, because things happen without being attributed—unless it’s to your opponent. In this transcript, it’s hard to find any. It’s direct—exactly what you’d design for kids. It’s been scrubbed every possible way.”

Who’s the most plainspoken of candidates? “Ross Perot!” Payack says without hesitation. “He was a man of the people—came in at 6.3. You know what makes people really think about these things, though? Sarah Palin, in her debate, was at 9.5. That wasn’t because it was all well-constructed sentences, [but] they were long; they were intricate.” Convoluted? “I won’t say that,” says Payack, laughing. “They were not short, and were interestingly contrived.”

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Textbook Obama