When President Obama said last night, "My message is simple," he wasn’t just a joshing. But he probably didn’t mean this:
President Obama's 2012 State of the Union address again rated at an 8th grade comprehension level on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test — the third lowest score of any State of the Union address since 1934.
The University of Minnesota's Smart Politics conducted an analysis on the last 70 State of the Union addresses and found that President Obama's three addresses have the lowest grade average of any modern president. "Obama's average grade-level score of 8.4 is more than two grades lower than the 10.7 grade average for the other 67 addresses written by his 12 predecessors," they conclude.
The Flesch-Kincaid test uses a formula to assess readability level. Longer words and more words in sentences lead to higher scores. Before Franklin Roosevelt, most SOTUs were delivered in writing. But the words per sentence employed by various presidents for spoken addresses is interesting.
FDR remains the champ, with 24.3 words per sentence, netting a grade level score of 11.4. John F. Kennedy is the modern president with the highest score: 23.8 words per sentence, with a grade level of 12th grade. (Education standards had slipped between FDR and JFK.) George W. Bush, not widely praised for his verbal gifts, came in with 19 words per sentence, with a grade level of 10.4. Interestingly, Bill Clinton had the same number of words in a sentence, but his grade level was 9.5.
And the score you’ve all been waiting for—Barack Obama’s speech last night had 16.7 words per sentence, with a grade level score of 8.4. In other words—junior high level.
Well, I don't know what, if anything, to make of this. Mollie Hemingway has an idea, though:
To Obama, We’re Children. To Daniels, We’re Adults
Daniels, of course, is Mitch Daniels, who gave the rebuttan last night to the SOTU. Mollie’s husband fed Daniels’ rebuttal into a Flesch-Kincaid model. Daniels’s grade score was 14, or college sophomore.
Mollie quotes Daniels final stirring last lines:
We will advance our positive suggestions with confidence, because we know that Americans are still a people born to liberty. There is nothing wrong with the state of our Union that the American people, addressed as free-born, mature citizens, cannot set right.
According to Mollie, some people prefer being treated as juveniles and thus may prefer Obama’s speech.
I only hope that Obama’s simplistic view of economics (rich=bad; higher taxes=good) is so very simplistic that voters, even those who aren't in a book club, will be see through it. I imagine many voters are noticing that Mr. Obama declines to talk about his record. You don’t have to be able to follow Edward Gibbon’s sentences to figure out why.