It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year! SOTU Edition

By James Fallows
Harry Truman's State of the Union, 63 years ago. Truman gave the first televised SOTU, in 1947, and the longest one ever, at around 25,000 words, in 1951. (Byron Rollins/Associated Press)

Since the dawn of time, or at least through the past few presidencies, after each State of the Union address I have hammered out an annotated version of the speech. Generally these have reflected the wizened "OK, here is the trick of how he saws the lady in half" view of someone who has been involved in producing some of these performance and has seen all too many of them.

For instance, here is a sample from a SOTU early in George W. Bush's term, with his 2003 speech. Comments in italics:

Jobs are created when the economy grows; the economy grows when Americans have more money to spend and invest; and the best, fairest way to make sure Americans have that money is not to tax it away in the first place. [Good politicians define problems in ways that make their preferred solutions seem the only logical choices. No one of any party could disagree with the first two parts of this sentence. With the third, the President moves toward the solution he has in mind.] 

Although, as I noted at the time, that same speech was clearly laying the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq that began five weeks later, I didn't realize in real time the significance of this 16-word passage late in the speech:

The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. 

Those 16 words became the heart of the "doctored intelligence" complaint about the oversold case for war in Iraq.

And here is the latest one, from a year ago, when Barack Obama made his first big appearance since his easy reelection but was girding (as he is now) for showdowns with the Congress:

Let's set party interests aside, and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future.  And let's do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors.  The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.  [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.]

Let's agree, right here, right now, to keep the people's government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America. [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.]

Through the past few years we've done the annotations with fancy popups, as you will see with that 2013 speech and its recent predecessors.

For technical reasons involving our new blogging platform, and also on the "enough is enough" principle, I won't be doing an annotated SOTU this year. Instead I'll refer you, for amusement and reference, to three previous "year-six" SOTUs that came at comparable points in previous administrations. They are:

Challenger, 28 years ago today.

Ronald Reagan, 1986, which was delayed a week because of the space shuttle Challenger disaster on the day originally scheduled for the speech. The full text is here, and it begins with tributes to the Challenger astronauts and also—those were the days!—to Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, who was in his final term of service. About 3,500 words long.

Bill Clinton 1998, which occurred just as the first Monica Lewinsky reports were circulating. Clinton's topics were variants of this "Bridge to the 21st Century" themes. To read it is to take an amazing trip back to the politics of those times. E.g.:

We have moved past the sterile debate between those who say government is the enemy and those who say government is the answer. My fellow Americans, we have found a third way. We have the smallest Government in 35 years, but a more progressive one. We have a smaller Government, but a stronger Nation. We are moving steadily toward an even stronger America in the 21st century: an economy that offers opportunity, a society rooted in responsibility, and a nation that lives as a community.

This speech is more than twice as long as Reagan's, nearly 7,500 words. The losses Clinton noted at the start were two congressmen from California, Walter Capps and Sonny Bono.

George Bush 2006, Bush also began by noting a loss: the death of Coretta Scott King. Then his speech moved onto the same boundless-expansionist territory as his second inaugural address one year earlier. E.g.:

Abroad, our Nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal: We seek the end of tyranny in our world. 

Bush was between the other two-term presidents in length, with a speech of about 5,400 words. Here is my annotated version of that one. 

Please study, compare, contrast—and understand the precedents through which Obama's speech should be assessed. If this makes you so interested that you want to read through the whole SOTU archives, a great place to find them is in the archives of the American Presidency Project of UC Santa Barbara.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/01/its-the-most-wonderful-time-of-the-year-sotu-edition/283394/