The State of the Union Is Scattershot

If President Obama delivers a conventional State of the Union address it will be little remembered and have almost no impact on public policy. 


If tonight's State of the Union address is anything like the ones that President Obama delivered in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, or 2013, here's what to expect: a banal, risk-averse, scattershot speech that could be cancelled without any great consequence. Obama is a capable orator. It's easy to remember some of his best speeches. He rarely gets to address America in prime time with Congress assembled. I'd like to see him focus on one issue, or even one theme, and marshal logic to persuade Americans that some substantive step or other ought to be taken.

But that would be unconventional and risky. Everyone with a pet cause that wasn't mentioned due to the narrowed focus would be upset. That's why the speech is likely to be broad and shallow, addressing so many subjects that nothing deep or lasting can be said about any of them. It will be constructed in hopes of making Obama seem likable, reasonable, and worthy of popular support, as if exuding those qualities will make an appreciable difference in his approval rating. Real attempts to persuade will be eschewed, for they can fail. Better, for the risk averse, to frame issues as if disagreement itself is the problem, and all that's needed is for legislators to put aside their bickering for the greater good.

At least that's how these speeches have gone before.

Viewers should beware of assuming that the agenda items set forth in the speech will remain priorities—some will, others won't—or that the promises Obama makes will be kept. Observers will talk about the speech as if there is no gulf separating what he says and means. To be sure, he will offer key priorities (all of them already known) in earnest. Looking back at the 2009 State of the Union Address, Obama promised an end to the Iraq War, healthcare reform, and stimulus spending. He would deliver on those promises. But he made these statements too:

  • "I intend to hold these banks fully accountable for the assistance they receive, and this time, they will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer. This time, CEOs won’t be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over."
  • "I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America. And to support that innovation, we will invest 15 billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America."
  • "... tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma."
  • "To overcome extremism, we must also be vigilant in upholding the values our troops defend—because there is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America. That is why I have ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and will seek swift and certain justice for captured terrorists—because living our values doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger."

These excerpts aren't meant to communicate anything other than the fact that the president sometimes makes pledges that he doesn't keep; other times, he calls on individual Americans to take steps that are wildly unrealistic; and most often of all, he implores Congress to pass legislation that it almost certainly won't pass.

What's the point? To make him look good, in hopes that the speech makes him more popular. Then he could do whatever it is he really wants to do, in the order of his choosing. But a conventional State of the Union never achieves that goal. So why do the conventions persist? Maybe it's the same reason politicians keep fighting the War on Drugs and thinking they'll get away with cheating on their spouses.

Inertia and ... well, I can't fully explain it.

Ed Kilgore is feeling cynical about the State of the Union too. "I’ve grown to dread these events," he writes. "The president will be subject to vast exercises in armchair psychology as his mood, his energy-level, his 'resolve,' are evaluated by way of how he delivers a rehearsed prepared text ... I have trouble engaging in such evaluations, being constantly distracted by the idiotic ritual of clapping and not clapping, standing and not standing, and the full range of mime-like facial contortions, to which we will be treated by the Vice President and the Speaker of the House."

Actually, the opposition's refusal to clap or to stand makes some sense, because they know as well as anyone that this speech isn't about the substance, it's about the optics that the president is trying to convey. They're trying to counter those optics. But none of it matters very much in the end. "At this stage of a presidency, a State of the Union address cannot be expected to have much, if any, consequence in terms of public opinion," pollster Bill McInturff told CNN, calling the speech "an ephemeral event that is perhaps a short-term focus of the ultimate D.C. policy insiders." It could be so much more. Lots of Americans will be watching Obama tomorrow. But he is unlikely to break from the typical SOTU script.

Too bad.