The State of the Union Address: Our National Pro Bowl
If you said to me, “let’s end the NFL Pro Bowl,” I’d probably disagree. Because while I haven’t watched a Pro Bowl in its entirety in decades, I’d hate to see a tradition end. But as any football fan will acknowledge, the Pro Bowl is a quasi-necessary event that is executed in a fundamentally flawed fashion. For starters, it occurs at the end of the season, instead of at the halfway point of the season like in other sports. This is because of players’ legitimate fear of injury in a game that has only pride on the line; as a result, everybody plays at about half-speed. Selected players decline to go, so you get the second, third, and sometimes fourth-best players at each position. The NFL moved it to the week before the Super Bowl, to make it less of an afterthought to the season, but now the players on teams in the Super Bowl skip the game.
My friends, the president’s State of the Union Address is our national pro bowl — a simulation of the art of persuasion and politics featuring all the big stars, played at about half speed, with no real consequence.
Really, quick, name one line from any of Obama’s previous addresses. No, the Joe Wilson “You lie!” cry came at a mid-year address to Congress making his pitch for Obamacare, not the State of the Union address. The only moment I could remember was Justice Alito shaking his head and quietly saying, “not true” when Obama claimed that “the Supreme Court reversed a century of law” in the Citizens United decision.
When the Washington Post assembled the “10 most memorable State of the Union addresses,” the only moment from the Obama years was Alito’s reaction; the only one from the Bush years was the “Axis of Evil” line.
CNN’s Tom Foreman — you know, the guy who wrote a letter to the president every day for four years — says the State of the Union Address “is a report card, and a prognostication.”
No, actually, it’s not, and the SOTUA would be better if it were indeed either of those, perhaps in chart form. Companies give annual reports, students get grades, employees get evaluations. Wouldn’t it be great if instead of the usual happy talk — “my fellow Americans, the state of our union is strong” — the president and Congress went over all of the usual metric of our national performance — everything from GDP to unemployment to high school graduation rates to mortality rates to quality-of-life polling — and evaluated where American life had been going well and not so well?
In theory, this could be enormously useful. Of course, part of the problem is the format of the “address,” and the thankless job of offering the response, which inevitably is declared to appear “smaller” than the president’s speech. Thank you, pundit world, we hadn’t noticed that the politician giving the response hadn’t delivered the speech in a large, historic chamber and been interrupted for applause after every sentence.
You’ll recall Matt Welch’s discovery from last year about just how interchangeable the rhetoric is:
Starting with John F. Kennedy’s address to a joint session of Congress in 1961, you could take one sentence from each SOTU since, in chronological order, and cobble together a speech that will likely resemble much of what you’ll hear tonight. So that’s precisely what I’ve done.
Every president uses the event as just another speech, and avoids anything resembling a hard-nosed assessment of where they’ve made progress and where they need to improve their performance. What’s fascinating is the ritual news articles about drafts of the speech and previews, as if you or I couldn’t predict a half dozen points and themes. This is why we have State of the Union drinking games — because people can often predict the precise phrases, never mind the topics or arguments. We’ll hear some variation of all of these:
“I am totally focused upon those who are still hurting in our economy that I said was in recovery, and that my staffers are now carefully insisting is ‘poised on the brink of recovery,’ whatever that means. To ensure we get off the brink of the recovery, and into the actual, you know, recovery part of the recovery, I will propose investments in infrastructure and education and green jobs and winning the future and solar panels and all of the usual stuff. It’s like that red-hot Recovery Summer we all enjoyed, even bigger and better. I will now reuse a line that was tired by the end of the 2008 campaign, that ‘some say we can’t afford to make these investments. I say we can’t afford to NOT make these investments.’ Now I will stop to bask in the applause of the remaining House Democrats who voted for the stimulus.”
“Look, up in those seats over there. A family connected with the Newtown shooting. Surely we can all agree that whatever your view on guns, opposition to my proposals means you don’t care about kindergartners.”
“Congress must act on my immigration plan that I have not written down. It is really important that we not give the illegal immigrants what they actually say they are seeking — the right to work here and send money back to their families in their own countries, with hopes of perhaps returning someday much wealthier — but to make them become full citizens, as quickly as possible, with instructions on how to vote Democrat in November.”
“Confirm my cabinet without delay. Chuck Hagel was great in that hearing, wasn’t he?”
“Partisanship is destroying America’s faith in Washington, and it is the fault of those blasted Republicans.”
And as with most of the previous addresses, they’ll be forgotten by Wednesday afternoon.
For a different view, here’s Clinton speechwriter (and once funny cartoonist) Jeff Shesol in 2010, seeming to suggest the address is resistant to reform or reinvention, because those within believe the format works:
It’s easy to kick this speech around. I’ve done so myself — even as I was helping draft one. In late 1998, as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, I wrote a memo complaining that “The Four (or Six or Sixteen) Challenges of the New Century” was not, in and of itself, a theme. I made the case instead for a compact, tightly thematic address — one that might be written by committee, but didn’t sound like it.
I lost that argument, and learned something in the process. Though Clinton’s 1999 State of the Union is not destined to be recited by schoolchildren a generation hence, it accomplished exactly what these speeches aim to accomplish. It rallied his supporters, spelled out his priorities for the year, gave direction to his party in Congress, and provided a certain shape and coherence to the national narrative.
The fact that Shesol could be brought around to believe Clinton’s 1999 address represents a triumph of the genre — quick, name anything you can remember about it — suggests how deep-rooted the laundry-list mentality is among White House speechwriters, past and present. The speech is background music to most Americans — the president recites parts of the federal government doing good things, pledges to continue to expand it, and members of his party leap out of their seats every time he pauses too long, lest the public believe that any utterance or clearing of a throat wasn’t worth a standing ovation.