The opening sentence of George F. Will's latest column ("Have We Got a Deal for You", 6/7/2009):
"I," said the president, who is inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun, "want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy meddling in the private sector."
This echoes J.B.S. Haldane's quip that the creator, if he exists, must be inordinately fond of beetles; and Will, like Haldane, is presumably proposing an inference about someone's preferences from his actions, not reporting a direct emotional revelation.
So, since I'm one of those narrow-minded fundamentalists who believe that statements can be true or false, and that we should care about the difference, I decided to check. (On Will, not Haldane.)
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).
This comparison suggests that George W. Bush, in his early press conferences, used first-person singular pronouns about 60-70% more often than Barack Obama did, while Bill Clinton, in the comparable events, used first-person singular pronouns about 50% more often than Obama did.
This whole exercise, by the way, took me about 45 minutes from conception to posting.
Now, maybe there's some selection of Obama's interactions where his use of the first person singular pronoun is higher than expected for someone in his circumstances. Alternatively, maybe George F. Will is a bullshitter, who doesn't bother even to ask one of his interns to check whether the alleged "facts" in his columns are true or false. We report, you decide.
[Update: Simon Spero, in the comments below, notes that Will may have been inspired by a recent column ("I, Barack Obama") by Terence Jeffrey, which does actually count pronouns in an Obama speech. As Simon points out, though, Jeffrey doesn't compare Obama's rate of I-usage with anyone else's; and in fact, Simon counts 40 first-person singular pronouns in 2376 words, for a rate of 1.7%. When I do it, I get 42 first-person singular pronouns in 2423 words, which is also 1.7%, rounded to one decimal place. Either way, the rate is even lower than the rate noted above for Obama, and well under half the rate noted for George W. Bush. ]
[Update #2 — More here, on Stanley Fish's version of the same concept: "Obama's Imperial 'I': Spreading the meme". And a bit more on presidential first-person plural pronouns here; and a deeper analysis of Fish's "Royal we" view of Obama's inaugural here; and another pundit joins the pack here. ]