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Quantifying Obama's Narcisissm


In his column today, George Will accuses the Obamas of taking an "Olympic Ego Trip." He does this largely by a word count: "In the 41 sentences of her remarks," Will writes, "Michelle Obama used some form of the personal pronouns 'I' or 'me' 44 times. Her husband was, comparatively, a shrinking violet, using those pronouns only 26 times in 48 sentences." This echoed Michael Gerson's blog post from late September, in which he characterized Obama's speech before the United Nations as "Me. Me, at all costs; me, in spite of all terrors; me, however long and hard the road may be." Gerson said he could not recall another "major American speech in which the narcissism of a leader has been quite so pronounced."

Harsh words. But are they accurate? Language Logs' Mark Liberman had taken a look at this question once before. He republished his results today.

I took the transcript of Obama's first press conference (from 2/9/2009), and found that he used 'I' 163 times in 7,775 total words, for a rate of 2.10%. He also used 'me' 8 times and 'my' 35 times, for a total first-person singular pronoun count of 206 in 7,775 words, or a rate of 2.65%.

For comparison, I took George W. Bush's first two solo press conferences as president (from 2/22/2001 and 3/29/2001), and found that W used 'I' 239 times in 6,681 total words, for a rate of 3.58% — a rate 72% higher than Obama's rate. President Bush also used 'me' 26 times, 'my' 31 times, and 'myself' 4 times, for a total first-person singular pronoun count of 300 in 6,681 words, or a rate of 4.49% (59% higher than Obama).

For a third data point, I took William J. Clinton's first two solo press conferences as president (from 1/29/1993 and 3/23/1993), and found that he used 'I' 218 times, 'me' 34 times, 'my' 22 times, and 'myself' once, in 6,935 total words. That's a total of 275 first-person singular pronouns, and a rate of 3.14% for 'I' (51% higher than Obama), and 3.87% for first-person singular pronouns overall (50% higher than Obama).

But maybe something has changed. Maybe Obama is getting worse. Liberman checked that, too.

As a result of this previous experience, I had a first-person-counting script all ready to go, and it took only a few seconds to check the new transcripts. This time around, Barack Obama's Olympic remarks included 26 first-person-singular words out of 1130, for a rate of 2.3%. This is slightly below his typical rate for presidential press conferences, and a bit more than half the rate of the George W. Bush pressers that I measured earlier (2.3/4.49 = 51%, to be precise).

I'd love to see Gerson and Will respond.

Photo credit: By Gerald Herbert – Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  October 7, 2009; 3:05 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama  
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Obama's great, blah blah blah. Give me a break, Ezra. Are you the president of the "Obama Apologist Club"? Presidents use the first-person pronoun a lot, but context matters more than just the simple use of the word I, me or my. Obama's Olympic speech sounded self-serving to the point of causing mass nausea to the IOC and anyone who might have seen the speech.

Posted by: novalfter | October 7, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse


The natural response would be that the comparison here is not a good one: a press conference is naturally about the President and his policies, his decisions, his thinking. One would expect frequent first person references. It is far less obvious why a pitch for the Olympics would include so many first person remarks.

Nevertheless, I don't think the numbers argument is the strongest part of Will's overall critique.

Posted by: FrBill1 | October 7, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Being a Repuke means never having to say you're sorry!
And Michael Moore is fat! And I say his talk was nauseating, so THERE!

Posted by: AZProgressive | October 7, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse

I don't think facts are generally important in Will's critiques.

Posted by: mschol17 | October 7, 2009 3:25 PM | Report abuse

The first time I saw this line of criticism was following President Clinton's farewell address, which supposedly had too much "I" in it.

Cultually, I do think there's an association between the conflict-management tool of using "I" statements / refraining from universal criticisms / staying positive often taught as a leadership technique and the liberal side of the 60s culture wars.

So when Obama says something like, "I think it's a shame that they didn't pick Chicago." George Will wants him to speak in absolutes, like, "The IOC is a biased institution for its failure to select the best city for the job." Granted, he still wouldn't be happy with the whole Olympic issue, but at least the President would be using bold, unconstrained (pre-Political Correctness) rhetoric.

Posted by: rusty_spatula | October 7, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse

It is obvious that a strategic decision was made to have the President and First Lady deliver deeply personal speeches that linked Chicago's Olympics application to their individual experiences with the city. After all, they were not extemporizing! The interesting question is why anyone thought such a strategy would be effective with the IOC members.

Posted by: hsny | October 7, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse

I would also point out that by calculating the number of pronouns as a percentage of the total word count does not take into account the comparative number of words per sentence. Given the obvious differences in Obama's speech style versus Bush, I would not at all be surprised if Obama's sentences on average are 30-50% longer.

And I would bet that Liberman cherry-picked that Bush speech because it happened to include a lot of first person references.

Posted by: morgen-vs | October 7, 2009 3:41 PM | Report abuse

As Novalfter's rant suggests, there is no metric that will disuade the vitriol of any given attack line on Obama. As you know, he is a nazi/terrorist/communist/traitor/fascist/corrupt/chicago-style/pop-star/racist/secret-muslim/Kenyan/liberal/narcissist/ who hates white people. They keep flailing for some attack and then not supporting it. Of course it's specious, but that's not the point.

They tried this particular attack during the McCain campaign. Remember the Paris Hilton/Moses ad?

Posted by: adamiani | October 7, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Pathetic niggling from journalists and bloggers will not make a difference in the long run. A mechanistic count of first person pronouns won't tell us a lot about Bush or Obama's eloquence, nor the lack thereof.

Let's just take George W at his word and let history be the judge. In fact if I were making a junior high text book, I can imagine the pictures of Bush that are on offer: Bush with pretzel, Bush ducking shoes, Bush in his flight uniform. It's a horrible thought to think that the future school children will be subjected to the full audio visual drawl. As for Obama, he's already given a number of good speeches and I'm not including the inaugural address.

Chris Brown in Hamburg

Posted by: chrisbrown12 | October 7, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Narcissists are emotionally fragile and often respond to challenging situations with defense mechanisms like projection, denial, rationalization, etc.

Apparently, Republicans are SOOOOOOOO neurotic they cannot even take the obvious step of comparing Obama with Bush or Clinton. Krauthammer was supposed to be a very capable psychiatrist at one time--maybe he could help straighten out Will and Gerson during their coffee breaks.

Unless of course they're all too busy primping in front of the mirror, lest anyone notice a hair out of place.

Posted by: jefft1225 | October 7, 2009 3:52 PM | Report abuse

An interesting comparison of "George W. Bush's FIRST TWO SOLO press conferences" and "William J. Clinton's FIRST TWO SOLO press conferences" to "Obama's FIRST press conference".

How does the comparison look when comparing only the first solo press conference of each cited President, absent the admitted bias? Do the statistics change??

I'd indeed enjoy reading a response by George Will... and would enjoy it even more if his response included commentary regarding the mathematics presented in recent "studies" by such groups as the New America Foundation and the American Cancer Society, to name only two.

Posted by: rmgregory | October 7, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

If George Will thinks Obama's speechwriters are fond of gaseous rhetoric and clichés, I'd love to hear what he thinks of Matt Latimer. Seriously, did anyone make it through that GQ piece? That was, what, almost a month ago?--and my brain is still bleeding.

Posted by: tbomb | October 7, 2009 5:20 PM | Report abuse

'Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all' - Peter Drucker

The Washington Post should just stop publishing BS artists, not work to make their BS less deep.

Posted by: jamusco | October 8, 2009 9:08 AM | Report abuse

I think what is most disappointing is that the people that are against Obama as president have so much dislike? fear? prejudice? (I'm really not sure since he has not really caused any major changes as of yet to affect anyone's life to the degree that people are upset) to write this kind of garbage in the first place. First of all what was G. Will's point? That the first family may be a little egotistical? Even if that were true it certainly doesn't affect policy. It just seems like another attempt to discredit the president in some small way. Imagine the pettiness involved here. Picture a man going through a transcript line by line counting pronouns in order to make this point. This is a pulitzer prize winning journalist grasping at straws just to paint Obama in a negative light. The reason people have begun to spout racism towards the conservatives is because we cannot find a better reason for these unrelenting petty and pointless attacks on Obamas character. Please let's try to show a little more self respect and dignity even when you do not like someone. A pulitzer prize winning columnist should have better things to do.

Posted by: trux | October 9, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

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