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. 


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