Annotated State of the Union Speech

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Overall this was an impressive and surprising speech, which accomplished the main goal of a "Year Four" State of the Union Address in a different way from what I had foreseen. Those goals include putting the political opposition in an awkward position in the run-up to the presidential election, and the speech did more of that than I expected.

A "Year Four" SOTU is usually only the third State of the Union address a president gives. When a new president has been elected in November, there's typically no SOTU address the following January. The old, outgoing president has no further program to talk about, and the new one has said his piece in his inaugural address. Even though it seems—at least to me!—as if they're always happening, in fact we get only three SOTU addresses every four years, or seven of them in the eight years of a re-elected president's two term.

At the beginning of Year Four for a first-term incumbent, which was the setting for Obama's speech this week, the purpose of the SOTU address is less to advance a program than to build a case. Although Year Four presidents, including Obama, often go through the motions of urging action on various bills, they know that very little is likely to occur—especially when, like Obama, they face a divided or opposition-controlled Congress. (It doesn't say much good about our legislative system that for fully one year out of four it's essentially out of commission, as all members of the House concentrate on re-election, along with a third of the Senators. But that's life.) These legislative "goals," like nearly everything Obama mentioned in this speech, really should be thought of as "for example" illustrations of the larger case the president is making for another chance at governing. In reality, everything a new president does from the day after his original election is done with an eye toward the re-election run. But starting in Year Four, that "four more years!" case is out in the open and legitimate. I don't think that the leitmotif slogan of this speech—"Built to Last"—is really going to make it as the slogan of the Obama 2012 campaign. (And for obvious reasons, they're not going to resurrect "Change We Can Believe In.") But the ideas and arguments in the speech do, I think, set up the main themes Obama and his team will stress.

In a nutshell, that theme—the intended message of the speech—is: I am a reasonable guy, still hoping to be a uniter rather than a divider, and I have a plan to deal with the trends that make us all worry about our economy and society. Also, I'm very patriotic—and if you think I'm weak or pussy-footing, go ask Osama bin Laden about that.


Remarks of President Barack Obama—As Prepared for Delivery

State of the Union Address

"An America Built to Last"

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Washington, DC

As Prepared for Delivery -

Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow Americans:

Last month, I went to Andrews Air Force Base and welcomed home some of our last troops to serve in Iraq.  Together, we offered a final, proud salute [1]to the colors under which more than a million of our fellow citizens fought—and several thousand gave their lives.

We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes [2]has made the United States safer and more respected around the world[3].   For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq.  For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden[4] is not a threat to this country[5]. Most of al Qaeda's top lieutenants have been defeated.  The Taliban's momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.

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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.

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