There have been a number of critiques of President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address — from misquoting Abraham Lincoln to repeating content from his past two speeches and using language that a Flesch-Kincaid readability test placed at an 8th grade comprehension level. Presidential historian Rick Shenkman, however, made one additional noteworthy observation: Obama’s speech mirrored progressive president Theodore Roosevelt’s address from 1906.
Speaking to The Wall Street Journal’s Jerry Seib and Kelly Evans, Shenkman described how Teddy Roosevelt’s State of the Union compares with Obama’s.
In a few short words: “It’s uncanny,” the historian said.
The big difference, according to Shenkman, was that in 1906 the economy was doing well, whereas today it is not. He added that the themes Obama attacked during his speech were dead ringers for the progressive Roosevelt’s. He also observed that both presidents painted themselves as the “reasonable bipartisan populist.”
“Both tried to do that business with education,” he added, saying that the Fed can only set a “good example” in the education system through the D.C. schools which it controls, but otherwise “can’t do much.”
Shenkman also pointed out the two president’s similar wish lists in terms of “training” people to be skilled workers and even good farmers.
When asked if one of former President Bill Clinton’s State of the Unions was also intended to be similar to Roosevelt’s, Shenkman reminded that then-Clinton strategist Dick Morris tore up the president’s existing speech just days before the address and rewrote a new one in about “48 hours.” The content of the revised Morris-Clinton speech focused on doing away with big government, according to the historian.
Clearly, “there is no Dick Morris in the Obama Administration,” Shenkman quipped.
Shenkman’s interview follows below. A full transcript of Roosevelt’s 1906 address can be read here.
Still, despite invoking Roosevelt and being dubbed by supporters a sophisticated orator, Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address in fact rated at an 8th grade comprehension level based on analysis conducted by The University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics. According to the data, Obama’s address garnered the third lowest score of any State of the Union since 1934. Of the last 70 State of the Unions, the research found that the president’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,” the study concludes.
“The Flesch-Kincaid test is designed to assess the readability level of written text, with a formula that translates the score to a U.S. grade level. Longer sentences and sentences utilizing words with more syllables produce higher scores. Shorter sentences and sentences incorporating more monosyllabic words yield lower scores,” the University of Minnesota’s Eric Ostermeier explained.
It seems worth noting that, although media and even political leaders often favor plain-speak to ensure reaching the widest audience, supporters have lauded Obama’s oratory skills among the greatest of any president in the modern era. Thus, critics might note that delivering a speech garnering the lowest possible score on reading comprehension does not fit that glowing narrative.