Can Obama Turn the State of the Union Into a Speech Worth Hearing?

The annual address has become a tired laundry list of presidential objectives. This year, though, might be different.

Barack Obama delivers the 2015 State of the Union. (Mandel Ngan / AP)

During his presidency, Barack Obama took on health-care reform, helped make gay marriage legal, reopened the diplomatic relationship with Cuba, made a nuclear-arms deal with Iran, rode herd on negotiations on global-climate change, and introduced gun-control measures.

But can he improve the State of the Union speech?

It seems like he’s going to try. As it stands, the State of the Union is a stodgy, outdated, annually disappointing rhetorical ritual delivered like a rote checklist of presidential goals. This year, though, “it’s not going to be a laundry list of things on the agenda” predicted Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

The president himself indicated the address would be different. It’s “not just what I want to get done in the year ahead,” Obama said in a White House video, “but what we all need to do together in the years to come, the big things that will guarantee an even stronger, better, more prosperous America for our kids—the America we believe in.”

That skeptical slow clap you're hearing is coming from my people: America’s professional speechwriters, communication professors, and public-relations practitioners. We allowed ourselves to hope, beginning at Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, that Obama was a political figure who could raise the standard for political communication and show the public how thoughtful, how articulate, how effective—how communicative—political rhetoric could be.

There was reason for hope. After all, this was a politician who had actually written a readable book, Dreams of My Father. He claimed he was a better speechwriter than his speechwriters and proved it with speeches like “A More Perfect Union,” the unforgettable, largely self-penned speech on race that saved his campaign. He was seen, in the November before his election, carrying a copy of Fred Kaplan's book, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer.

But Obama's governing prose has not transcended partisan opinion, even among professional rhetoricians. A left-leaning speechwriter is likely to sing the praises of Obama’s communication style, and a right-leaning speechwriter is likely to focus on the president’s dependence on the teleprompter, or to be left cold by the words he reads from it.

The one concrete measure the president could take—something that would be cheered by people who see better communication as a path to better leadership—is exactly the one he says he intends to take: eschew the standard practice of the State of the Union as a “laundry list,” as it’s been called since back when people actually knew what a laundry list was. “A great speech can't be a list,” says Tom Rosshirt, a former speechwriter to President Bill Clinton and a judge of the annual Cicero Speechwriting Awards. “It just can't.”

The State of the Union came by its form honestly, because for most of its first 100 years, it was a printed progress report—the “President's Annual Message to Congress”—sent to Congress rather than read aloud. Since Woodrow Wilson re-instituted the practice of delivering the address, the form has suffered from a case of arrested development. It’s appeared increasingly anachronistic, as presidents have developed so many other means of communicating, both with Congress and with American citizens. People who watch the State of the Union come away from the speech feeling more overwhelmed than intellectually organized—and judging from the generally declining ratings—less likely to tune in every year.

As the editor of the monthly speech collection Vital Speeches of the Day, I have to tune in annually, no matter how stale it feels. But I’m looking forward to doing so this year, on the chance that Obama’s final State of the Union will be different: Thematic, rather than comprehensive. Instead of piling up, summing up. Taking advantage of one of his very last opportunities to look Americans in the eye and speak his piece and leave them with a single idea or a call to action. It's President Obama's last chance to update the state of the State of the Union speech.

For the sake of would-be watchers of the States of Union speeches for generations to come—let’s hope he pulls it off.