The Annotated 2013 State of the Union

Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress.  If you want to vote no, that's your choice.  But these proposals deserve a vote.  Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.

One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton.  She was 15 years old.  She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss.  She was a majorette.  She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend.  Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration.  And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.

Hadiya's parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence.  They deserve a vote.

Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.

The families of Newtown deserve a vote.

The families of Aurora deserve a vote.

The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence - they deserve a simple vote.

Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country.  Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I've outlined tonight.  But we were never sent here to be perfect.[cj] We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.

We were sent here to look out for our fellow Americans the same way they look out for one another, every single day, usually without fanfare, all across this country. We should follow their example.

We should follow the example of a New York City nurse named Menchu Sanchez.  When Hurricane Sandy plunged her hospital into darkness, her thoughts were not with how her own home was faring - they were with the twenty precious newborns in her care and the rescue plan she devised that kept them all safe.

We should follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor.  When she arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours.  And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say.  Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her.  Because Desiline is 102 years old.  And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read "I Voted."[ck]

We should follow the example of a police officer named Brian Murphy.  When a gunman opened fire on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and Brian was the first to arrive, he did not consider his own safety.  He fought back until help arrived, and ordered his fellow officers to protect the safety of the Americans worshiping inside - even as he lay bleeding from twelve bullet wounds.

When asked how he did that, Brian said, "That's just the way we're made."

That's just the way we're made.

We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us.  But as Americans, we all share the same proud title:

We are citizens.  It's a word that doesn't just describe our nationality or legal status.  It describes the way we're made.  It describes what we believe.  It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story[cl]

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

[a] 

As always at the beginning of these events, we have our moments of stagecraft and physical drama. Which congressmen and senators will have queued early enough and pushed aggressively enough to be within handshake-and-hug range of the president as he makes his way down the aisle? Which of them will he recognize and be able to call out by name, as opposed to the generic "Good to see you!"? Will the president insist on the "double ovation" -- the first one when the doorkeeper of the House announces his arrival and he walks into the room, and the second after the speaker makes the ritual announcement that he has the "high honor and distinct privilege of introducing the president of the United States"?

Sometimes presidents let the second ovation run as long as it will last; this time, Obama tried to hush it down almost immediately, so he could get into his pitch.

[b] 

The additional bit of stage business always involves the comportment of the vice president and the speaker of the House. For nearly 90 minutes they are on tens of millions of television screens -- but they're in a downside-only predicament where the best they can hope for is to seem unobtrusively alert (or at least awake, and upright) most of the time, and suitably enthusiastic and supportive at crucial moments.

When the two come from different parties, as they obviously do now, there's a built-in barometer for how the speech is playing with the respective parties, based on the smiles, frowns, applause, and decisions to stand-while-applauding that come from the two sides. And when the two are characters as expressive as Joe Biden and John Boehner -- well, think how much more interesting this part is to watch than the Denny Hastert/Dick Cheney lineup we had through most of the early 2000s.

[c] 

Interesting touch. Usually presidents, including Obama in several previous SOTUs, begin with "fellow Americans" rather than "fellow citizens."

Let's make it a Rorschach test. Some people will see that Obama, with that last nettlesome election finally behind him, can begin to reveal his true distance from mainstream American values. Others, that we have a sly subliminal introduction of the theme of citizenship that will run through much of the speech. Or maybe the people in charge of this speech simply forgot to look at the way the previous ones had started off. My money is on some combo of theories two and three.

[d] 

Ah, our old friend, the rhetorical device usually called "antithesis." Not X but Y, not yesterday but tomorrow, not an ending but a new beginning. It is not perplexing but predictable that this would show up in a quote from JFK, since he went for this kind of pairing in a big way.

[e] 

Two notable points about this passage. First, the "grit," "grinding," "grueling" sequence cannot be accidental and is very nice.

Second, a big sustained cheer for the "men and women in uniform are coming home" line. Everyone quickly rises for a standing ovation, including -- unusually -- the Supreme Court justices who have shown up. Given how controversial everything about Iraq and Afghanistan has been for more than a decade, a very striking demonstration of unanimity on wanting U.S. exposure in both countries to end.

[f] 

This is the SOTU's version of poetry, at least in the bureaucratic sense. He manages to allude briefly to some of his major achievements, or ongoing fights, involving Obamacare and financial regulations in general.

[g] 

Only tepid applause here, which in other times might have been another prompt for everyone to rise and cheer.

[h] 

As we've chronicled over the years, SOTU kabuki means that every address needs to include some variant on the "State of the Union is ... " line. Almost always the desired ending to that sentence is "strong."

This is either a clever or a clumsy twist on the familiar approach. "Stronger" -- implying progress, but leaving "stronger than" undefined. Also, Obama delivers what is usually one of the big lines of a speech in an off-hand, under-stressed way.

[i] 

The concept in this paragraph is the one he's tried to make the theme of his presidency since the Kansas speech 15 months ago. "Our generation's task" casts it in appropriately SOTU-esque terms. Biden and Boehner both applaud the line.

[j] 

Fascinating mark of the times: Obama delivers "who you love" in completely matter-of-fact terms, and no one in the hall reacts either pro or con. Just a fact of life now. In these ways do we observe political and cultural change.

[k] 

I won't cite every occurrence of this theme, but again this is Obama 2.0 -- his theme since Kansas, and also his incorporation of Bill Clinton's message and style, both when Clinton was in office and when Clinton was wheeled in to invigorate this year's Democratic Convention.

[l] 

We're back in the "antithesis" business here again. Also, Obama trying to position Republicans as opposing common-sense agreement, and so on. Biden stands and applauds this line. Boehner stays in his chair.

Recurring theme: Biden is having a good time here. Boehner is being stoic but is not enjoying himself.

[m] 

If you go back and listen to his 2004 speech again, you'll hear many of these same lines.

[n] 

Classic SOTU transition sentence. Linking the set-up you've just given to your next list of policy proposals.

[o] 

Non-speech aside: Two years ago, in the middle of a recession, American politics was seized by the idea that the gravest threat to our future was federal deficits -- as opposed to joblessness, infrastructure-decline, or so on.

Now it's a secondary theme -- even, strikingly, in Marco Rubio's official response for the Republican Party.

[p] 

Obama utters this word with an appropriately "reporting to you from the middle of the alternative universe that is Washington" tone.

[q] 

Democrats cheering. Republicans, not.

[r] 

Of course the politics of this year and many years to come will turn on the definitions of "modest" and "reforms" in this context.

[s] 

For the record, I still hate the use of "grow" as a transitive verb meaning "increase." "Grow my crops," fine. "Grow the middle class," yuck. But on the content, this sentence and the next few paragraphs are the heart of Obama's budget-and-economy theme. Point one: America has to grow [intransitive!] from the middle-class outward. Point two: You can't make that happen mainly with cuts.

[t] 

Now this is interesting. When politicians, including Obama, begin down the "most Americans understand ... " trail, they usually are analogizing government spending to a household's budget. And since the government has different functions and imperatives from a household, that comparison often leads to grief. Here is making a different point -- anti-austerity, Keynesian without the name -- but introduced in the same "this is common sense" way.

[u] 

I won't keep calling these out, but again this is the rhetoric of Obama from 2004 onwards, and the economic argument from Kansas onward. He is rattling off most of the speech at this stage but does put some stress on "everybody."

[v] 

I am not enough of a budget geek to know exactly how to make sense of this. But obviously it is an important claim for Obama to be able to make in the upcoming budget wars. Sure, I'm concerned about spending -- and see, I have a plan that matches the vaunted Simpson-Bowles.

[w] 

Here we get a cutaway shot of Senator Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, a medical doctor -- who with his stylish glasses, trimmed goatee, and very snazzy haircut looks (a) great and (b) more like an actor playing a senator than the way senators look in real life.

[x] 

Say it along with me: Hello, Antithesis! Speechwriters around the world see this line and think, "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate." There is some other rhetorical device folderol in this kind of construction. You can look it up -- i.e., that "negotiate" quote, and what is going on therein.

[y] 

He ad-libs, "We can get this done!" and gets a pretty good round of applause all around.

[z] 

"High-powered" is a corny word to have here; its only justification is for a contrast with "hard-working." He also ad-libs that these high-powered accountants are "working the system."

[aa] 

Biden and the Democrats on their feet cheering. Boehner and the Republicans stay in their chairs -- can't tell whether Boehner claps at all.

[ab] 

For the record: Camera pans to Rep. Eric Cantor for this line.

[ac] 

One of the clearest partisan-divide moments. Biden and all the Democrats shoot out of their chairs and cheer. Boehner  sits expressionless and does not clap.

[ad] 

Now this is remarkable. One of the tricks of SOTU drafting is to construct sentences that force the other side to join in the applause, because you've ended the sentence on some "U-S-A! U-S-A!" type of line. Which is what Obama has done here: Who can possibly be against upholding the full faith and credit of the United States? The remarkable part is that the congressional GOP has decided it is not going to applaude this line. So we have the odd spectacle of Democrats, led by Biden, up and cheering for America paying its bills -- while the speaker of the House and other members of his party remain seated and un-applauding.

[ae] 

Another reminder of the distance we've come in the past two years. Before and immediately after the 2010 midterms most politicians, including at times Obama, talked and acted as if deficit reduction was the only economic step that mattered.

[af] 

The "North Star" reference is one Obama likes to use. Back in 2010 he said at one of his press conferences, "My job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there. What is helping the American people live out their lives? What is giving them more opportunity? What is growing the economy? [see previous usage note] What is making us more competitive?"

[ag] 

"The Convergence of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Chapter 73." Clinton, and now Obama, are not the first Democrats to make this "smarter, not bigger" point. I know -- first hand! -- that it was an important part of Jimmy Carter's rhetoric. Michael Dukakis was admired for it when he led George H.W. Bush in the 1988 polls, and then derided as a bloodless technocrat after he lost. But Clinton made it an important part of a "triangulated" Democratic policy, and Obama is applying an updated version.

[ah] 

I am intentionally going light on the rest of this economic argument. It's getting late; many of the points that apply before show up here as well. We're all busy.

[ai] 

Here we get a shot of Apple CEO Tim Cook, in the "Lenny Skutnik" role for the speech. If you don't know about Lenny Skutnik, check out previous versions of these annotations.

[aj] 

All he needed to add here is "Subscribe!" Follow The Atlantic's excellent coverage of this trend! Both Boehner and Biden clap for this one -- unlike the "faith and credit" line.

[ak] 

Weirdly, Biden spends this paragraph fumbling in his coat pockets to find a pen; then using his mouth to hold the pen's top; then writing a note to himself and putting a note card back in his pocket. What had just occurred to him?

[al] 

No response from any part of the crowd to this line.

[am] 

For later discussion: This paragraph and the ones that follow are obviously important, in historical and policy terms. Obama had notably underplayed this issue over the past two years. Starting with his inaugural address, he has decided to talk about climate issues. Whether he -- or anyone -- will be able to do enough, or anything, is a different question. But these are paragraphs that will be looked back upon: as a beginning, or as a failed attempt.

Also: Biden immediately shoots to his feet. It appears that Boehner does not even clap.

[an] 

Won't keep pointing this out, but again: applause on this on straight partisan lines.

[ao] 

McCain shown with tight, not-smiling-with-his-eyes grin here.

[ap] 

No More Mr. Nice Guy. And he sounds as if he takes this seriously.

[aq] 

As I've argued before, this is actually an OK way to use the "menace from abroad" concept in presidential rhetoric. Not that China (or Germany, etc.) is menacing us, but that they're setting a standard. If they can do this, why shouldn't we?

[ar] 

He ad-libs: "This is part of an 'all of the above' approach" to energy problems. It will not make friends on the left, but he is talking more about climate in these past two months than he has before on the national scene.

[as] 

A fairly remarkable potential achievement, if you think back to previous ambitions (e.g., raising average fleet mileage and so on.)

[at] 

For later discussion: how Obama wants to position himself as the New Eisenhower, a temperamentally conservative person who wants to have a national-security and national-welfare rationale for infrastructure projects, research, education, and so on.

[au] 

(1) Ah, it brings back the Carter days! When these policies actually made a difference. (2) Boehner and Biden both cheer. We'll take our consensus where we can get it.

[av] 

The nicest human moment in this speech. Obama is razzing all the Republicans who denounce his stimulus bills but then put out press releases and go to ribbon-cuttings when the projects come to their districts. No one watching on TV knows what Obama is getting at here; everyone in the hall does. He is having fun, and Boehner has the grace to smile.

[aw] 

For some reason, only Democrats appear to cheer this line. This would also seem a gimme for the GOP, but I'm obviously not in charge of their response.

[ax] 

Two tried-and-true approaches here: calling what you want to do "modern," and the "worthy of our children" line appealing to our self-regard or at least our regard for our offspring.

[ay] 

"Right away" is another of his familiar themes from stump speeches. He ad-libs, "We can get this done," and starts doing so more often in the following passage.

[az] 

Meta-point here: Obama's argument that the GOP has a greater interest in blocking whatever is defined as the Obama agenda than in the objective merits of any proposal. Thus this and other challenges to "take a vote" -- to consider the issues on the merits and see where they lead. Obviously this plays a big part in the concluding appeal about gun violence.

[ba] 

Ad lib: "Why would that be a partisan issue, helping folks refinance?" There is an aw-shucks tone to this, with the use of "folks," but it's consistent with the "stop the obstruction and see where we can agree on the merits" pitch.

[bb] 

Classic SOTU transition device, variant 47B.

[bc] 

Significant specific pitch. Democrats stand, Republicans sit.

[bd] 

I haven't looked it up, but I bet that Bill Clinton has uttered this exact sentence at some point in his career -- probably many points. It is his kind of quantified common-sensical appeal.

[be] 

Shot to Chuck Schumer with a huge grin.

[bf] 

Again, I am not enough of a higher-ed geek to judge this, but everything I've read suggests that this could be quite a significant change. More later.

[bg] 

The crucial stage-business point here is that Biden is immediately up and cheering -- as are most other Democrats -- while Boehner and most Republicans either don't respond or react only tepidly. Just as a matter of positioning, why aren't they leaping to their feet as well? Marco Rubio is the official responder, in part to show the GOP's expansion beyond is assumed older-white demographic base. And indications are that the GOP will sign on to this reform bill. So why not at least cheer?

[bh] 

OK, I wouldn't cheer this line, but purely because of the odious "grow our economy" usage. Fortunately the representatives and senators from both parties are above such pettiness, and most of them are on their feet.

[bi] 

If you look back over Obama's speeches of the past two years, you will see this sentence structure quite a lot -- often with "jobs bill" in the place of "immigration reform bill."

[bj] 

Biden and the Democrats leap to their feet. Boehner motionless.

[bk] 

For later discussion: this could be significant. At a 40-hour week, 52 weeks a year, $9/hour is still just over $18,000 per year. And on inflation-indexed terms, it would leave the minimum wage still significantly below its level in the 1960s. But it is one thing federal policy can do to offset rather than intensify economic polarization.

[bl] 

Remember him?

[bm] 

Biden claps, Boehner doesn't, for what had been the position of his party's nominee.

[bn] 

An important line that I thought would get more reaction than the mild applause it actually evokes.

[bo] 

Oh, grrroooaaannnn! This is the hoariest sort of "Turning now to world affairs" transition. But we've all gotten tired while at the keyboard, as I obviously am now.

[bp] 

The most important word in this sentence is "our."

[bq] 

I don't have time to go into this at the moment, but: A hugely significant question for American foreign and domestic policy alike is whether Obama is on the verge of "declaring victory." I argued a long time ago that George W. Bush could and should have done so too; the case is here: http://theatln.tc/Yhk12b. Obama seems as if he might be preparing the political and logical groundwork for such a step. But again, more later on this theme.

[br] 

This paragraph raises first-order issues about Obama's presidency but cannot resolve them. He says here that he recognizes the need for democratic checks, balances, and accountability for even the unconventional military options of modern drone-and-detention war. But he still has not moved far past the "trust me" mode. This paragraph says he will do more. We'll see.

[bs] 

SOTU transition writing, model 1037Q.

[bt] 

Endless verities of the SOTU: If there is any significant world event or domestic issue you don't mention, you'll be eaten alive for the oversight. Thus a mention of North Korean nukes, followed by talk of Iran.

[bu] 

You know what I'm about to say: here is the latest item from the grab-bag of familiar SOTU transition tricks.

[bv] 

There are times when threatening ambiguity serves a president well, and this is one of them.

[bw] 

The idea that the air-traffic-control system is being sabotaged is news to me; this is an interesting and aggressively stated paragraph. In bureaucratic terms, people looking for funding for cyber security in the Department of Defense and elsewhere all rejoice.

[bx] 

Bonus sentence! Antithesis! And classic SOTU transition! Together at last.

[by] 

Biden is thumbing through his copy of the speech now, to see how many more pages are left. Not too many!

[bz] 

One more topic that he HAD to mention but on which his comment can't be much more than restating the ambiguity of the current approach.

[ca] 

I wonder if there is something wrong with Boehner's knee, or back. He and Biden both clap for this -- but when most everyone else stands up for an obvious applause line, Boehner stays in his seat.

[cb] 

Boehner sore knee theory, continued: This is another absolute no-brainer standing ovation line for the speech. Biden indeed stands, as do most people in the hall, but not Boehner. He claps briefly, seated.

[cc] 

As best I can tell, Boehner doesn't clap here.

[cd] 

Ad libs, "and moms"

[ce] 

This does bring Boehner to his feet.

[cf] 

I promise, this is the last time I'll point it out: but by the end of this speech you will recognize the Classic SOTU Transition Sentence when you next encounter it. I'll leave the rest of them in this speech for you to pick out on your own.

[cg] 

As with the gun-safety issue he is about to raise, it's notable that Obama appears to be staying with this issue rather than letting it fade.

[ch] 

Significantl ad lib: "can't afford to wait ..."

[ci] 

About the rest of this speech, I will simply say: This is powerfully and masterfully done, and it had its effect within the hall. It had the speech's one memorable line -- "they deserve a vote" -- and as composition, as pacing, as appeal to both emotion and logic, as a specimen of delivery it represented the appearance of Eloquent Obama in this address. If you watch it in replays, you will see Obama employing a style he has used only when he knows things are going very well. He hears the audience's applause -- and doesn't wait for it to subside, but essentially surfs above it, giving the "they deserve a vote" refrain as the applause continues to build. It is the most preacherly part of his rhetoric repertoire, and he uses it superbly for this few-minute stretch.

[cj] 

Essay question: Barack Obama, Reinhold Neibuhr. Compare and contrast.

[ck] 

Boehner bad knee theory: he is one of the few in camera range not standing to applaud the 102-year-old Desiline.

[cl] 

In an ideal world, these would have been the final words of the speech. This paragraph is a perfectly good ending! But in the fallen world of modern American politics, major presidential speeches must end with the paragraph that follows. It is our modern counterpart of "Amen" or "Drive home safely, folks."

Still, a speech that ended stronger than it began, and sets out interesting political and policy points.

See you next year. And God bless the United States of America, plus any other country I can think of, and The Atlantic magazine and its readers, and speechwriters everywhere.

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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