As odd as this may seem, President Obama’s critics have taken a keen interest in his pronouns: for some on the right, carefully counting the number of times Obama uses the word “I” or “me” tells us something important about the president’s arrogance. Or something.
This line of attack has been ongoing for years, though Charles Krauthammer, non-practicing psychiatrist, summarized the right’s pitch about a month ago: “I mean, count the number of times he uses the word I in any speech, and compare that to any other president…. You know, this is a guy, you look at every one of his speeches, even the way he introduces high officials – ‘I’d like to introduce my secretary of State.’ He once referred to ‘my intelligence community.’ And in one speech, I no longer remember it, ‘my military.’ For God’s sake, he talks like the emperor Napoleon.”
With this in mind, BuzzFeed put together an interesting research project.
BuzzFeed News analyzed more than 2,000 presidential news conferences since 1929, looking for usage of first-person singular pronouns – “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine,” and “myself.” Just 2.5 percent of Obama’s total news-conference words fell into this category. Only Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt used them less often. […]While Obama has shied from the first-person singular, he’s leaned heavily on the first-person plural – “we,” “our,” “ourselves,” and “us.” In fact, he’s used it more than any president in the dataset.
Hmm. This would suggest Obama is actually the least narcissistic president in the modern era. Krauthammer, who specifically urged the public to “count the number of times he uses the word I in any speech,” isn’t just throwing around cheap criticism, the far-right pundit actually has the entire line of attack backwards.
In fact, this seems like a fine time for a new chart.
Note, the y axis shows the percentage of times a president used the words “I,” “me,” “my,” “myself,” and “mine” at a news conference.
To be sure, the idea that the president’s pronouns have come under fire is emblematic of conservative criticism that’s spiraled to silly depths. Obviously, every president is going to take heat for nearly every decision, but when some of the nation’s leading commentators insist Obama deserves contempt for his use of “I” and “me,” these corners on the right may want to pause for a deep breath.
But even if we take the entire line of attack seriously, the complaints are still wrong.
As for the metrics, John Templon’s report added, “While presidential news conferences don’t capture the totality of how Obama or Hoover or Roosevelt talk, they represent one of the largest corpuses – if not the largest – of presidential speaking. Every president has at least 125,000 spoken words in the data set. The news conferences also typically feature a mix of scripted remarks and a question-and-answer session. Even in presidential speeches, which are highly scripted, Obama’s usage of first-person singular pronouns ranks below average –1.6 percent vs. 1.8 percent.”
As best as I can tell, Krauthammer has not yet responded to the findings.