Thanks in part to his rhetorical prowess, President Barack Obama has been credited with restoring prestige to the presidency—in contrast to his predecessor, George W. Bush, who was often derided for sounding vacuous.
But is this observation true, or just an assumption? And how have presidential speeches changed throughout U.S. history? Vocativ wanted to find out.
Using the Flesch-Kincaid readability test—the most well-known reading comprehension algorithm—Vocativ analyzed over 600 presidential speeches, going back to George Washington. We measured syllables along with word and sentence counts, and gave each speech a numerical grade. For instance, a grade of four means the content is accessible to a fourth-grader, while a grade of 12 corresponds to that of a high school graduate, a 15 to that of a college graduate and a 21 or higher to that of a PhD. Ultimately, we drew five conclusions, each of which was analyzed by Jeff Shesol, a historian and former speechwriter for Bill Clinton.
“It’s tempting to read this as a dumbing down of the bully pulpit,” Shesol explains. “But it’s actually a sign of democratization. In the early Republic, presidents could assume that they were speaking to audiences made up mostly of men like themselves: educated, civic-minded landowners. These, of course, were the only Americans with the right to vote. But over time, the franchise expanded and presidential appeals had to reach a broader audience.