Conservative commentators are fond of pointing to Barack Obama's excessive use of the word "I" as evidence of the president's narcissism. ("For God's sake, he talks like the emperor Napoleon," Charles Krauthammer complained recently.) But there's one tiny problem with this line of reasoning. If you're counting pronouns, Obama is maybe the least narcissistic president since 1945.
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 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.
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. (Obama's most famous slogan, of course, was "Yes We Can.") In his news conferences, those pronouns account for 3.6 percent of all his words. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were the only other presidents who used the first-person plural in news conferences more often than they used the first-person singular.
If you combine both the first-person plural and first-person singular — "we" and "I" — Obama's in the middle of the pack. Number one is Harry Truman.
Obama's pronoun usage seems to reflect a longer-term change in political speech. Since 1990, the use of first-person singular pronouns has been gradually decreasing, with first-person plural pronouns rising to take their place.
Contact John Templon at firstname.lastname@example.org.