"Obama," the National Journal's Ron Fournier fretted in a column on Tuesday, "leans on three words that should be virtually banned from the vocabulary of any leader: I, me, and my." It's of a piece with Fournier's long-standing criticism of Obama: If he'd only use the right words in the right combination, the frustrations of Washington would fall away.
We were curious, though, if Fournier's argument held water -- if President Obama was unusually fond of referring to himself. Fournier offers some select anecdotes to argue his point, but we figured it was worth actually looking to see if this was the case.
We took a dozen or more speeches, comments, and radio addresses from the last three presidents in June and July of the second year of their second terms and counted the instances of "I," "me," and "my." And Fournier is actually right: Our counts showed that Obama mentioned himself 835 times in the 31,123 words we counted in 16 speeches. That's 2.68 percent of the time. Which is higher than the percentage for George Bush: 2.25 percent (897 uses in 39,810 words in 14 speeches). And it's higher than the percentage for Bill Clinton, if barely: 2.6 percent (676 uses in 26,031 words in 12 speeches).
But it seems hard to believe that this is what Fournier really meant, that out of every 10,000 words spoken by a president, Obama will use the word "I" eight more times than Bill Clinton. Especially given how unevenly distributed the uses are, which is probably a function of the random way in which we picked out the examples. (Each includes a press conference, a weekly radio address, and a fundraiser among the other random assortment.)
Here's Clinton's distribution. His low point was his weekly radio address about the war on drugs. His high -- one of two samples we tested that checked in at over four percent -- was when signing a deadbeat parents law and taking questions from the press.
Here's Bush. His high was during a press conference on Iraq. It appears to be in informal events like that where presidents to use more references to themselves.
And now, Obama. Obama's comments were pulled from the most recent examples at the White House website, which, for what it's worth, included more of the campaign-style events for which Obama is well known/sometimes excoriated.
For kicks, we also tracked the number of times each president was interrupted by applause or laughter, and the number of times he referred to God. (In Clinton's defense, his speeches, from UCSB's American Presidency Project, appear to include fewer such annotations.)
People clapped for Bush and Obama about equally, but laughed at Obama more. Is this affecting his ability to lead?
If you're curious, we also crunched numbers for Fournier's last five columns. He mentions himself in them using the words "I," "me," or "my," about 1.2 percent of the time.