'We Do Big Things': The Annotated State of the Union

Over the years, I've often done day-after annotations of the State of the Union address, to go through the text the way a speechwriting crew might and examine why things were said the way they were, and weren't -- and what else might have been said. For instance, last year's is here.

Now, this year's installment. A few paragraphs of intro, and then the "as delivered" text from the White House, with marginal comments that should appear as you hover over each marked passage. At least in tech terms, this is an advance over what we've done in recent years! For that, thanks to Betsy Ebersole and her colleagues.

The setup:

Overall this was a good speech, in the peculiar way State of the Union addresses can be "good." Because of their length, they simply can't have either a concentrated or a sustained emotional tone or theme -- unlike, say, Obama's Tucson memorial speech. Because there's hardly any topic they can safely leave out, they also can't develop a coherent intellectual or policy argument -- in contrast, say, to Obama's 2009 speeches about nuclear weapons in Prague or America's relations with the Islamic world in Cairo. (I'm using Obama illustrations: you could make the same contrasts for any president.)

SOTU_bug.gif And why do they "have" to be so long and all-inclusive? A perfect illustration: At a high-end SOTU "viewing party" in New York last night, a mainly Obama-sympathizing crowd sat through the speech with good attentiveness, yet with no one wishing it were any longer. Then came the first critical comment, from a strong Obama supporter: "But he didn't say anything about XXXXX." Most of the unhappy reactions I've heard from Obama opponents today are variants of, "But he didn't say anything about putting me back to work." Extend such reactions through the entire federal government -- and indeed the world at large, as governments, citizens, and interest groups listen carefully to hear whether their cause makes its way into the speech [Southern Sudan? Yes! Egypt? No!] -- and you understand the despair with which any speechwriter approaches this event. I'm not exempt: in the "future of energy" passage I would have been miffed if he hadn't somehow mentioned the word "coal."

What a SOTU speech can do, then, is provide a showcase and a test for the president in the simplest horseflesh terms. It's not a matter of his rhetorical flourishes, or his arguments about policy, but himself (eventually herself) -- in his primal identity as leader of the tribe. How does he look? How does he sound? How does he carry himself? Does he seem burdened, or resilient? Above all, how does he look, sound, and carry himself  in circumstances like these, after he has suffered a major electoral reverse. Obama's test of personal bearing after the midterm rout was similar, of course, to Bill Clinton's in his 1995 address (with Newt Gingrich behind him for the first time as speaker), or Jimmy Carter's in 1980, just after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (opening words: "This last few months has not been an easy time for any of us"), or George W. Bush in 2002 ("axis of evil"), so soon after the 9/11 attacks.

By that standard, I thought Obama succeeded. He sounded and looked both confident and calm through most of the speech, and by the end replicated some of the feat he had accomplished in Tucson, of making sober news seem an occasion for hopefulness and celebration. He managed to sound more like Ronald Reagan than like, say, Jimmy Carter, about the electoral reverses he had endured -- a kind of "there you go again" amusement, as opposed to hurt or resentment.

There's another way in which SOTU speeches "work," and don't -- with the public, as opposed to the professional commentariat. Political and media pros tend to complain about the length, and the run-through of policy possibilities known in the DC as the "laundry list," that typify these speeches -- but post-speech polls often indicate that ordinary-citizen viewers actually like hearing all these details, and stay for the whole show even when the president runs long. They may not remember any of the proposals, or believe they'll happen -- but evidence suggests that people like to hear these things said.
If you actually tried to follow the logic of the heart of the speech -- the first 50 minutes that were on domestic policy -- you could see something like a logical progression. Roughly: The worst of the emergency is over -> now we need to think about rebuilding sources of jobs -> which brings us to sci + tech -> which brings us to education, and so on. He had to lay it out, even though it will probably have faint-at-best relationship to what happens these next two years. But, again, logic is never the test at these events. Tone is, and overall it worked.

A few more points before the blow-by-blow:

  • I had quickly read a leaked version of the speech, on a mobile phone, half an hour ahead of time and thought: It's going to be a long night! I was mildly surprised that it sounded better -- mainly more upbeat -- as actually delivered than it had seemed on that tiny screen.

  • The surprising charm of the "Date Night" seating plan. I had thought the plan to break up the seating blocs, to avoid the campy tableau of half the crowd standing and cheering and the other half sitting in glowering silence, would be pure gimmickry. But in practice it seemed more important than that. Seeing John McCain sit with apparent affability next to John Kerry, Kirsten Gillibrand with John Thune, Chuck Schumer with Tom Coburn, Republican and Democratic congressmen from North Carolina or Virginia sitting side by side -- these made for more appealing cutaway shots than the usual glimpses of hostile warring camps. I don't know if this will happen again, but it was worth it this time.

  • The surprising charm of John Boehner in the Speaker's chair. I know that some people felt he was glowering behind Obama -- and certainly by the end you could see him thinking, When can I have a smoke? (Maybe Obama was thinking that too? I digress.) But I thought he was a relatively genial presence -- certainly as compared with Newt Gingrich, who played that role behind Clinton in 1995 -- and clapped along with Biden more often than not. It was also charming how Obama orchestrated a few "let's make John Boehner cry" moments, and Boehner went along.

  • The speech contained one unbelievably horrible "what were they thinking" line, and at least one successful off-hand joke.

  • The penultimate lines of the speech had an interesting touch.

  • I am not saying anything about the response by Rep. Paul Ryan because I didn't see it in real time. I am not saying anything about the response by Rep. Michele Bachmann because I'm waiting for Saturday Night Live.

Now, let's go to the charts. 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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