It's no longer just imperial pontificators like George F. Will and Stanley Fish. The Obama-is-a-narcissist-and-his-use-of-I-proves-it meme has spread like kudzu, wrapping itself around the brainstem of every Fox News sub-editor and provincial pundit in the land. You couldn't kill it with a blowtorch.
Fox News, specifically, has decided to count first-person pronouns in every speech Obama gives. Thus "The I's Have It: Obama Hits 34 I's in Washington D.C.", FOXNews.com, 2/7/2010:
Much attention has been given to President Obama's persistent use of "I" when giving speeches to sell his administration's agenda. Is he taking responsibility — or, as his critics say, is he still in campaign mode? FoxNews.com is tracking the president's speeches all this month and will report back after each to see whether The "I's" Have It.
In the case of President Obama's Feb. 6 DNC speech, Fox counts 3,092 words and 34 "'I' references". Using their transcript, I get 3094 words and 40 total first-singular references (22 I, 11 I'm, 3 I've, 2 me, 2 my), for a rate of 1.29 per hundred words. He also used 172 first-person-plural words (83 we, 36 our, 21 we've, 20 we're, 9 us, 2 we'd, 1 ourselves) for a rate of 5.56 per 100 words, and a We/I ratio of 4.3.
But these numbers are uninterpretable without some point of comparison. Is 1.29% I-words a lot for a speech of this type? A little? A moderate amount? Luckily there were a few competing political speeches at about the same time. Perhaps the most widely-covered was Sarah Palin's Feb. 6 speech at the Tea Party Convention. In CNN's transcript (eliminating commentary and question text), I get 118 first-singular pronouns in 6973 words(75 I, 12 my, 12 I'm, 11 me, 6 I'll, 2 I've ), for a rate of 1.69 per hundred, or about 31% more I-fulness than Obama.
Palin also used 247 1st-plural pronouns (107 we 83 our 38 us 9 we've 9 we're 1 we'd), for a rate of 3.54 per 100 words (about 57% less we-fulness than Obama), and a we/I ratio of 2.09 (less than half Obama's ratio).
House minority leader John Boehner (R-OH) appeared on Meet The Press on Jan. 31. His remarks comprised 1353 words, including 27 first-singular pronouns, for a rate of 1.996 per 100, which is about 55% more ego-referential than Obama's DNC speech. Rep. Boehner used 70 first-plural pronouns, for a rate of 5.17 (making him almost as we-ful as Obama), but his we/I ratio was significantly lower, at 2.59.
On Feb. 10, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) appeared on All Things Considered to discuss his budget plan. Based on the WBUR transcript, he used 35 first-person-singular pronouns, for a whopping I-fulness rate of 4.28%. Ryan's we-word count was just 16, for an anemic we-fulness index of 1.96, and an exceptionally ego-involved we/I ratio of 0.457.
Satire aside, let me emphasize again my conviction that these numbers are meaningless without further context and analysis, except perhaps as an index of pundits' idiocy or malice. Such proportions vary widely with formality, interactivity, and other obvious factors — and there are several different sorts of I and we, as James Pennebaker explains in his post "What is 'I' saying?", 8/9/2009. But those who think that such counts and rates are a useful measure for one public figure should be honest enough to try the same metric across the board.
[For a great deal of further commenter discussion about this post, some (though not all) by people who have read it, see The Volokh Conspiracy.]
[And a comparison of pronoun rates in the nomination acceptance speeches of Obama and McCain is here.]