The lack of complexity in President Obama’s recent speeches to college students suggests that they were stump speeches more suited for the presidential campaign than official government business, experts say.
Obama addressed the coeds at the Universities of North Carolina, Colorado, and Iowa at a sixth grade reading level, according to Flesch-Kincaid reading comprehension difficulty tests conducted by the Washington Free Beacon.
All three are swing states and young people were instrumental to Obama winning each of them in 2008. The timing and locations of the president's remarks—which focused on student loan interest rates—sparked debate about whether they were campaign events or policymaking trips.
Measuring the complexity of each speech can help distinguish between the two, according to political rhetoric experts.
“You want short, punchy presentations when you’re campaigning rather than, say, an intricate defense of just war. You’re going to come out with different patterns on the Flesch scale,” said Fred I. Greenstein, a professor of politics emeritus at Princeton University.
Obama’s student loan remarks seemed to fit the bill for a campaign speech. According to the Flesch scale, which measures reading difficulty on a grade-level scale, Obama’s oratory has been on a steep decline from the 2008 campaign.
The college speeches represent a low point for Obama, who spoke to Europeans gathered in Berlin using 9th grade rhetoric.
Elvin Lim, an associate professor of government at Wesleyan University and the author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush, is not surprised that Obama has dumbed down his language.
“This is a guy who is a constitutional law professor, but the structure of the presidency is such that you have to go anti-intellectual,” he said.
The Washington Free Beacon assessed dozens of Obama speeches from different stages of his career using the Flesch-Kincaid method and found that the pattern of simple speeches did not start with his reelection campaign.
Since taking office, Obama has routinely spoken to the American people in a more simplistic manner than his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Obama’s State of the Union addresses peaked at a 10th grade level in 2009 and declined to an eighth-grade level by 2012. Bush, on the other hand, scored consistently above the 10th grade level with his State of the Union addresses, including a high of 11.84 for his 2005 address.
Bush’s appeal for his signature tax cuts was delivered at a higher level of complexity than Obama’s argument for their repeal.
The former president’s June 2001 signing statement was at a 10th grade level, compared with the seventh grade level at which Obama spoke in 2010. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” State of the Union speech, given in 2002 and derided by academic critics as overly simplistic, was delivered a full grade level above Obama’s lauded 2002 “dumb war” oration.
The test is not a measure of ideas, but in how they are communicated. It assigns complexity based upon grammatical conditions of words per sentence and syllables per word.
“I don't trust that measure as an indication of the complexity of their thoughts or arguments,” said Kathleen Jamieson, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking. “Complex, nuanced thoughts can be readable.”
Jeffrey Tulis, a University of Texas associate professor of government, said Obama’s rhetorical patterns run counter to the traditional trends.
“His governing rhetoric is less sophisticated than the high points of his oratory during the ’08 campaign,” said Tulis, author of The Rhetorical Presidency. “It’s actually diminished the rhetorical gifts that he has.”
Tulis’ conclusion was confirmed by the Flesch-Kincaid testing. Obama’s major campaign addresses and writings consistently came in above his presidential speeches.
Obama’s rhetoric peaked in his 2008 speech on race relations during the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy; the speech was at a 12th grade level. The oratory matched Obama’s literary prowess. His second bestseller, The Audacity of Hope—a title borrowed from a Wright sermon—was written at an 11th grade level and fell slightly below the Flesch score of the Gettysburg Address.
Following his September 2009 health care address, delivered at a ninth grade level, Obama began using more and more simplistic language when addressing the American people.
In the past two years, Obama’s major national addresses have fluctuated between grade seven (Gabriel Giffords; September jobs speeches) and grade eight (his April 11, 2012 remarks on the Buffett Rule).
“The healthcare debate created such an uproar there was very little help trying to sell that program,” said Professor Lim of Wesleyan. “He learned that when you’re explaining you’re losing. He’s taken the path of least resistance.”
Experts are not certain there is another Rev. Wright speech coming down the pipeline any time soon.
“This time around he doesn’t have the inspirational thing anymore, so he seized upon ‘unfairness’ and to fit into that narrative, you have to simplify your arguments to a moral compass,” Tulis said.
Lim expects Obama to begin tackling more complicated issues if he is elected to a second term. But he is not sure Obama will return to his intellectual core.
“There will come a day when the campaigning and governing will merge. That will be the ‘permanent campaign’ where language is dumbed down for good,” Lim said. “That’s the tragedy here.”