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Obama's final State of the Union, by the numbers

President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address was a far cry from his predecessors' oratory.

There's George Washington, for instance. Here's one of the opening lines from his first State of the Union speech in 1790:

"In resuming your consultations for the general good you can not but derive encouragement from the reflection that the measures of the last session have been as satisfactory."

If you have no idea what our first president was trying to tell Congress, you're not alone. By most objective measures, the language in the State of the Union (and indeed in political discourse in general) has been getting less complex over time. They've also been getting less verbose by and large, which Obama actually joked about Tuesday night.

"I'm going to try to make it a little shorter," he said. "I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa."

The most popular standard for measuring the complexity of written English is the Flesch-Kincaid test, which uses the number of syllables in words and the number of words in sentences to assign a grade level to how hard it is to understand. By that standard, Obama's speeches are among the simplest yet.

Before we all start comparing Obama to a kid in a dunce cap, we should remember that simpler language is not always a bad thing. As we've pointed out before, simpler language means that a politician can connect more effectively with the majority of Americans — a populist tactic that many would consider preferable to long-winded sentences full of college-level vocabulary.

It's also interesting that, according to the data above, Abraham Lincoln's speeches were on the low end of what was normal for his time, and he's considered one of the best orators in American history.

Not all State of the Union addresses have been delivered orally. In fact, about half the speeches above — including most of the speeches by every president from Thomas Jefferson (who took office in 1801) to William Howard Taft (whose presidency ended in 1913) — were delivered to Congress in written form.

That partly explains why the complexity and length were so much greater in those days. Writing a report to Congress is a lot different from writing a speech that the president will give, especially on live television.

Presidential language

The complexity of English words and sentences isn't the only thing chief executives have changed over the years. The topics addressed in the speech and the language used to describe America itself have also changed.

Washington, for example, found "uniformity in the currency, weights, and measures" of enough importance to mention it in his first three speeches. As secretary of state, Jefferson wouldn't submit a plan for such uniformity until later in 1790, and the Coinage Act establishing official currency wouldn't be signed until 1792, so those were important issues at the time.

What's important today? Well, the economy has certainly found its way into the speech in a way it had not prior to the 1960s. Even taxes — one of the most important issues to many voters — weren't mentioned as prominently in earlier speeches (click on the legend to add or remove series).

True to form, Obama mentioned jobs 20 times in his speech on Tuesday.

"We're in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history," he said, "more than 14 million new jobs, the strongest two years of job growth since the 1990s, an unemployment rate cut in half."

While some things never change — "war" for instance, comes up in the speeches any time the country is having strife abroad — references to the "world" are a somewhat recent phenomena. So are the constant references to America or Americans, and to "freedom," a word that some presidents seem to like more than others.

One thing that makes Obama different is his choice of verbs. Historically, presidents have chosen to say that we "can" do some things and "must" do others. Between 1933 (when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office) and 2008, saying certain things "must" be done became more popular than saying they "could" be done.

"We must go forward as one America, one nation working together to meet the challenges we face together," Bill Clinton said in his 1996 State of the Union. "Self-reliance and teamwork are not opposing virtues; we must have both."

It looks like Obama has almost single-handedly reversed that trend, saying "must" far less frequently than his predecessors, and often not at all. Even the speeches seem to echo Obama's campaign slogan, "Yes we can." In Tuesday's speech, "must" was not heard at all, while "can" was used 19 times.

"What was true then can be true now," Obama said. "How can we make our politics reflect what's best in us, and not what's worst?