From almost the moment President Obama assumed office, observers began calling attention to his unusual proclivity to use the pronoun I. In one of the earliest notices of this practice, an alarmed Terence Jeffrey of CNS News counted 34 I’s in the president’s speech on the federal rescue of General Motors but, ominously, just one mention of “Congress” and none of “law.” Stories documenting Obama’s fondness for the personal pronoun have dotted newspapers and blogs ever since. Just last week, a report in Grabien charged the president with referencing himself (I or we) 118 times in 33 minutes in his departure speech from India, which computed to a rate of “3.5 Obama references per minute.”
It comes as no surprise that most who read the I-meter have been critical of the president. Their calculations are meant to suggest that Obama has crossed a verbal Rubicon, employing the first person more often than any other president. Language, to these critics, clearly matters. Obama’s pronominal binging, they assert, bespeaks a dangerous personalism in his view of governance, a boundless narcissism in his psychological disposition, and a peculiar solipsism that demands that his listeners see the world as filtered through his eyes. Typical of this last rhetorical feature, it was charged, is a passage from the president’s recent State of the Union address: “I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates from New York to California; . . . I’ve mourned with grieving families in Tucson and Newtown; . . . I’ve watched Americans beat back adversity from the Gulf Coast to the Great Plains.” Could these events have taken place, and these sentiments been experienced, if President Obama had not been there?
The president’s defenders have reacted to this series of articles with astonishment, wondering at a preoccupation they see as trivial. The repeated exercise of counting words and devising formulae, dressed in a veneer of objectivity, is evidence of the critics’ mental derangement. Their behavior is fueled by an irrational antipathy to the president, more sophisticated than, though no different from, the rantings of the birthers. Insofar as there is any factual basis to these findings, defenders argue, it proves nothing more than the presence of a personal linguistic trait or marker, which almost everyone possesses. If ever Obama gets the chance to answer this charge, he can be expected to dismiss it with the simple claim, I am who I am.
Some supporters have gone further, however, and questioned whether the whole case is not overblown. Other leaders, they argue, have also availed themselves regularly of personal pronouns. It is not necessary to go in search of ancient imperial declarations, like Louis XIV’s boast “L’état c’est moi,” to make this point; it is sufficient to compare Obama with past presidents. A quick survey by BuzzFeed in 2014 purported to show that in press conferences Obama has been more sparing in his use of personal pronouns (I, me, my, mine, and myself) than most of his predecessors. According to BuzzFeed, “Obama is maybe the least narcissistic president since 1945.” This means less than Truman, Eisenhower, or George H. W. Bush.
Is there a way of resolving the controversy? Fortunately, the modern research university, fortified by an influx of federal funding for the digital humanities and the analysis of Big Data, offers the resources for grappling with this question. To be sure, contemporary social science, which is pledged to value-free analysis, must scrupulously abstain from assessing competing normative claims regarding the dangers of self-reference. But it can settle the factual question of the frequency with which such references occur, avoiding both the Scylla of journalistic impressionism and the Charybdis of partisan statistical analysis.