The Annotated 2013 State of the Union

The line I thought I remembered from his 2004 convention speech -- "not red states, nor blue states, but the United States of America" -- he never actually said. The real passage went this way: "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there's the United States of America." Red states and blue states did make their appearance in a nice package -- but, again, not one that's quotable in the way that "only thing we have to fear" or "tear down this wall" or even "axis of evil" is.

For the record, here's the way the blue/red states appeared:

The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an "awesome God" in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states.

We coach Little League in the blue states and yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

I remember the ideas from many of Obama's speeches -- and the effect and arguments from several of the speeches taken in sequence. But if you remember specific sentences from any of them, you're ahead of me.

Which brings us to this latest speech:

  • It seemed longer than it actually was -- only about an hour of actual speaking time, "terse" by modern SOTU standards -- mainly because so much of it, roughly the first 50 minutes or nearly 90 percent of the whole, was laid out in unadorned, formulaic, "moving now to item No. 16 on my policy list" fashion, and often delivered in a perfunctory tone.
  • But inside that plain wrapping was more substantive news than SOTUs traditionally contain, and news at two levels. First, on the item-by-item basis, Obama offered a notably large number of specific proposals ($9/hour minimum wage, universal preschool, climate efforts, new accountability standards for colleges, etc.). Here he may have been taking advantage of a principle that Bill Clinton established in his filibuster-length SOTU in 1995. Immediately after the speech, commentators mocked Clinton for his numbing prolixity, but TV ratings and polls showed that ordinary viewers stayed with Clinton through the address and actually liked the piling-up of detail.
  • Second, on the strategic level, Obama continued the shift to a "No More Mr. Nice Guy" approach signalled in his second inaugural address. The Atlantic Wire's Dashiell Bennett has chronicled exactly this evolution, 'from the 2009 leader who politely hoped his ideas would pass, to a president simply telling Congress what he wants them to do."
  • Then, startlingly, he shifted for the final six minutes of the speech to the one rhetorically and emotionally powerful stretch of his presentation. This was the "they deserve a vote!" sequence about the families and communities ravaged by gun violence. (More about that below.)
  • In short, this is a speech that will be remember rhetorically only for its ending -- if for anything at all, but again most SOTUs are not memorable. On substance it will be memorable, or not, entirely depending on whether Obama is able to make good on the goals and commitments he has set out on issues ranging from climate change to gun-safety legislation.

Let's go to the text!

State of the Union Address[a]

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Washington, DC[b]

Presented by

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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