The Corner

The Pull of the SOTU

Every year we get the explainer pieces about the State of the Union. After George Washington’s address, the SOTU was written. It used to be called the president’s message or some such. We get the tallies of what SOTU’s accomplish and, more important, don’t accomplish. And so on. I know I am hardly alone in finding it all a bit tedious. It’s no doubt true that the tedium hinges at least a bit on one’s view of the person delivering the State of the Union. I’m sure that President Obama’s biggest fans aren’t so much bored as hopeful that this speech will help turn things around for him (Spoiler: It almost surely won’t.) But I know I was certainly bored with George W. Bush’s later SOTUs as well. There’s a lot to be said for the first State of the Union Address of any presidency (even though technically the first one is not a State of the Union at all, but merely an address to a joint session of Congress). People want to see their new president and hear what he has in store. But by the sixth one, nobody really wants to watch a State of the Union Address. We may feel obligated to watch – out of professional or civic duty — but the number of people who woke up giddy with anticipation for tonight’s speech has to be smaller than the number of people who thought Caddyshack 2 was better than the original. 

For years, I’ve heard people say that they wished the president would just go back to writing a letter to Congress and be done with it. I honestly would prefer that as well. Again, maybe not for the first one or if the president has something truly important to say. But I really do resent the demand on my time and attention to listen to a fairly pathetic wish list of focus-grouped programs and the rhetorical placating of various constituencies. As a fan of civic rituals myself, I understand why some people have a soft spot for the pageantry of this thing. But I find it all canned, tacky and vaguely monarchical. If you find that too mealy-mouthed, I strongly recommend you read Kevin Williamson’s piece today. He’s less equivocal. 

Kevin writes, “The next Republican president should remember why his party is called the Republican party and put a stop to this.” That’d be nice. But I doubt any president could ever resist the pull of the State of the Union. When you think of the nature of the presidency today and the role of the federal government, asking a president to forgo a national commercial for his job and his agenda is almost unthinkable. The press would crucify a president (certainly a Republican president) for taking the night off, as it were. The political consultants would be furious. The speechwriters would be like professional hammerers being told that we will be skipping the annual nail-pounding ceremony this year.

It’s actually a useful exercise to think about the institutional backlash a president would receive if he announced “let’s skip it.” Because there’s very little hard evidence the president benefits from the State of the Union. It rarely moves poll numbers or changes Congress’s mind about anything. The press treats it like a big deal, but it’s usually forgotten within days. It’s strongest shelf-life comes in the way the White House gets to justify their actions by saying, “We said we’d do this in the State of the Union” — as if the State of the Union were a binding precedent of some kind. President Obama is particularly fond of this technique, saying “As I’ve said before” as if he’s citing case law. 

If President Obama — or any president this far into his second term — went out and said, “look, I’m going to keep this short” and gave a real 20 minute speech with a beginning, a middle and an end – about the state of the union – it would be a huge hit. But there’s something about the presidency itself these days that makes it impossible for those inside the presidential bubble to understand this. And so tonight we will get the last thing this country wants from Barack Obama: another speech. 

 

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

Most Popular

Film & TV

A Sad Finale

Spoilers Ahead. Look, I share David’s love of Game of Thrones. But I thought the finale was largely a bust, for failings David mostly acknowledges in passing (but does not allow to dampen his ardor). The problems with the finale were largely the problems of this entire season. Characters that had been ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Great Misdirection

The House Democrats are frustrated, very frustrated. They’ve gotten themselves entangled in procedural disputes with the Trump administration that no one particularly cares about and that might be litigated for a very long time. A Washington Post report over the weekend spelled out how stymied Democrats ... Read More
World

Australia’s Voters Reject Leftist Ideas

Hell hath no fury greater than left-wingers who lose an election in a surprise upset. Think Brexit in 2016. Think Trump’s victory the same year. Now add Australia. Conservative prime minister Scott Morrison shocked pollsters and pundits alike with his victory on Saturday, and the reaction has been brutal ... Read More
NR Webathon

We’ve Had Bill Barr’s Back

One of the more dismaying features of the national political debate lately is how casually and cynically Attorney General Bill Barr has been smeared. He is routinely compared to Roy Cohn on a cable-TV program that prides itself on assembling the most thoughtful and plugged-in political analysts and ... Read More