Ah, the State of the Union address – a distinguished Tuesday during which red-blooded patriots and curious citizens gather around the television to witness the president deliver hard facts that affect us all: We learn about the budget, the American economy, and a host of national priorities on the horizon.
In 2018, this political moment garnered an astronomical amount of attention. Between Democrats vying to boycott it altogether and an overarching feeling of distrust in light of an ongoing FBI investigation, President Donald Trump took to the podium as tens of millions watched on.
Many of his critics have slammed him for being unintelligent. In order to begin unpacking whether that claim is legitimate, we decided to compare the content and complexity of his first State of the Union speech to those of his predecessors. Using the Flesch–Kincaid scoring system, we developed an analysis of the reading level for each president’s first State of the Union address. Curious who earned top marks? Read on to discover the aptitude behind the address.
Forty-fourth American president Barack Obama is considered to be one of the great orators of our time – however, this nationally-revered speaker came from humble beginnings. His first State of the Union address clocked in at a seventh-grade reading level, the lowest of any president since George Washington first took to the podium in 1790. After President Trump’s speech in 2018, which pulled a reading level of eighth to ninth grade, Obama remains the sole occupant of said slot.
Over the past five decades, no president has managed to breach the college-level barrier with the content of their speech. Among the eight presidents before Obama, there was an even split between eighth- to ninth-grade level speeches and 10th- to 12th-grade level speeches. Each President Bush fell into the former category, while the likes of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon belonged to the latter. With the addition of President Trump, the number of speeches ranked below a 10th-grade level now represents a majority: Between the past ten presidents, only four made the cut.
In all the years before 1961, only two presidents shared words that fell below a college reading level: Calvin Coolidge in 1923 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. Even then, both presidents managed to exhibit no less than a 10th- to 12th-grade vocabulary. John F. Kennedy, in 1961, was the last commander in chief to top out at the college-level bar, with John Adams being the first in 1797. Only a handful of presidential speeches attained the reading level of a college graduate, the most recent of which was in 1853, delivered by Franklin Pierce.
We used the Flesch–Kincaid readability system – a formula analyzing the total number of words, syllables, and sentences in each text in order to equate it with a corresponding school-aged reading level – to analyze these speeches. On this scale, a low number is desirable, not a high score.
The State of the Union speech series started off with a bang … and it’s all generally been downhill from there. George Washington scored a 17.04 on the scale, the best of any president in American history. It took a number of years and a few more presidents before the second-most complex vocabulary made its way onto the board: in 1809, James Madison pulled a 24.99 (bearing in mind that his was one of the written ones). In comparison, President Trump’s spoken 2018 address racked up a score of 63.90, a figure 3.75 times higher (remember, lower is better) than Washington’s.
Since then, it’s been a veritable rollercoaster of scores, jumping from high to low and everything in between. The most recent upward arc began in 1929 with Herbert Hoover (44.27), reaching an apex between Franklin D. Roosevelt (40.62) and Harry S. Truman (40.89), and finally settling into a downward slide beginning with President Kennedy in 1961. The latest State of the Union speech, delivered by President Trump, was a step up on the scale compared to 3 out of the 4 presidents to directly precede him (he was narrowly eclipsed by George W. Bush at 61.77).
Over the last few centuries, presidents have been swapping verbose language for a simpler lexicon. To be fair, though, at a certain point that may be par for the course: There are many factors that have shaped and modernized the English language over time, including technology and social media (let’s just hope that emojis never make it into a presidential speech).
While many might have assumed President Trump’s State of the Union would exhibit the lowest language level of any president – based on past instances of questionable spelling and a propensity to ramble – he managed to dodge that outcome. Instead, he fell into step with the majority of recent presidents, continuing the downward trend of an increasingly simple speech structure.
It’s easy to get caught up in the fanfare of the event, but don’t forget that at its core, the address is meant to educate the American population. If you missed the speech, or want to dig deeper into how the government spends its money, visit GovSpend.com. The site helps agencies and vendors make informed decisions about government buying and contracts and hosts a huge amount of data regarding spending trends and more. Get informed with GovSpend.
Using the speeches provided by the American Presidency Project, we looked at the first State of the Union speech from each president that had delivered one. When a president served more than one term, only their first term’s initial address is included.
For the purposes of the analysis, only the official State of the Union messages were analyzed. Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Obama, and Trump all delivered messages to joint sessions of Congress shortly after being inaugurated. These were not included in our analysis.
To arrive at the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Score of each body of text we used the Python Textblob library. This tool is meant to analyze modern English, which may explain the downward trend in reading level among the first presidents to Trump today.
To read more about the Flesch-Kincaid Score and how it is calculated, you can visit this resource.
Republican, Democrat, Independent, or whatever you may be, there’s no wall around this project; the findings in this study are free to reuse for noncommercial purposes. We ask that you link back to the authors so that proper credit can be given.