Asking More From the Next State of the Union Address

The American people no longer even notice whole categories of flaws in political rhetoric.


Every year after the State of the Union Address, I wonder at the subset of people who praise it in language that suggests a category error. I have no lofty or urgent objection to the Constitution-inspired speech. Like the Rose Parade, lots of Americans watch it on TV each January. Like a coach's heavy-handed pep talk near the end of a generic sports movie, it offers superficially inspiring words about putting differences aside and coming together. Like the appetizer sampler-platter at a chain restaurant, its assemblers bet that if they put enough stuff before us everyone will nosh on at least one deep-fried nugget of ambiguous provenance.

But how does anyone treat the State of the Union as an elevated work of intellectual integrity when it is better thought of as the political analog of a Don Draper pitch?

This was not Barack Obama constructing a nuanced argument or leveling with us about how he assesses the United States. It was a poll-tested, agenda-driven attempt to sway public opinion, often with language that sacrificed logic to emotion. Maybe that's politically inescapable. My intention isn't to condemn Tuesday's speech for being compromised in the same way as every SOTU I've ever seen. But neither should journalists ignore the glaring weaknesses these speeches exhibit, even if that does require pointing out similar flaws year after year.

Yes, let's analyze the policy proposals and guess at what the political signals portend. Bet let's also explicitly acknowledge egregious weaknesses in substance, for they remind us that the audience is being willfully manipulated by speechwriters.

Isn't it worth noting, for example, that this year's speech is full of lazy, obviously false dichotomies? "Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing?" Obama asked. "Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet?" No one endorses the former position. The latter would win universal approval. Together they do not come close to characterizing, let alone exhausting, the actual foreign policy choices before us. Such sleights of hand fill every State of the Union speech, not because Washington, D.C., speechwriters are incapable of writing with more care and rigor, but because the press and the public are inured to being trifled with in this way.

We take illogical, emotionally manipulative content in stride, being little more inclined to flag or question it in a State of the Union Address than we would in a beer commercial. The difference is that when we see a bunch of toned beach volleyball players executing spectacular spikes and dives, all while fueling themselves with a beverage no professional athlete would dream of sipping during competition, the spectacle is filtered through the reflexive suspicion we have for ads. But when a president utters a political equivalent just as ridiculous, many people file it under elevated words to treat with seriousness and reflexive respect.

The consequence is an inability to even imagine presidential speeches that avoid the glaring flaws of most that are given, as if no choice is before us but to grade on a curve that awards As and Bs for rhetoric any good college professor would fail.

"Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another," Obama asked, "or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?" But America has not always been characterized by a sense of common purpose, nor has common purpose always driven us forward. The premise is not just contestable, but reductive to the point of inaccuracy. Were there a price to be paid for such transgressions, if they at least caused POTUS and his speechwriters to be marked down when the commentariat graded them, we would reasonably expect more focus on rigor and substance.

Isn't that incentive worth creating?

"For his allies and even many liberals who had grown sour on him, it was a triumphant speech in which both his own soaring confidence and his dismissal of his political rivals was fitting and appropriate," Chris Cillizza writes of this year's State of the Union in the Washington Post. "For his detractors, the speech was everything they loathe about him: cocky, combative and forever campaigning." Such analysis would be enough if the president were called to stand before us once a year to report on the state of his confidence and political ambitions.

But if we're to get something more from this much-heralded speech, something like what the Founders intended when mandating an annual report from the executive, we need to demand it rather than imbuing with integrity speeches that lack it.