Where will the speech stand, on the laundry-list scale? That is, will it be a speech at all, or essentially a big wish-list catalog?
For budget purposes and later maneuvering over policy and prominence, the entire rest of the government is continually scheming to get a sentence or even a clause in a State of the Union address, which it can quote the rest of the year. (“As the president himself put it …”) The classic illustration of this tendency is the “switchgrass” reference from George W. Bush’s speech in 2006: “We’ll also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips and stalks or switchgrass.” Switchgrass? You can bet that companies and government agencies in the plains states-biofuel business were citing that line through the rest of Bush’s term. (When I was working on one of these speeches for Jimmy Carter a full 40 years ago, I received piles of memos and three in-person visits from officials, all toward a one-sentence mention of a dam-building project in a poor country in Asia—which would have been that speech’s switchgrass moment, except that the sentence was cut in the final spasms of speech-shortening desperation.)
With the entirety of the policy establishment pushing in this direction, the natural tendency of speeches is to become long and checklist-like. The threshold question about each year’s speech, by any president, is how hard he and the writers will push back, toward the ever illusory less-is-more approach.