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Off to the Races

Don't Watch the State of the Union

The president’s annual speech promises to be boring—and politics as usual.

Bedtime story: State of the Union speeches are almost always dreadful and boring.(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Charlie Cook
January 27, 2014

Tuesday the nation will watch Washington’s annual State of the Union Kabuki dance.

The president’s speechwriters will have started out to craft an important and thoughtful speech, determined to avoid having their boss deliver another really boring monologue that is both a laundry list of what the president wants to do and what he would do if the opposition party and special-interest groups rolled over and played dead for the rest of the year. But by the end of the process, despite the best of intentions, it will very likely sound like all of the others. Journalists will solemnly pronounce that this speech is critical for President Obama because of blah, blah, and blah, proclaiming that this State of the Union address is everything but life or death. Then, as soon as the speech is finished, media sycophants, members of the president’s party, and ideological brethren will say that it was a momentous address, one that truly rivaled Lincoln’s at Gettysburg, while the opposition party and its toadies will declare it so wrongheaded and the delivery so bad that they wonder if something might be wrong with the president.

We will also witness several dozen members of Congress spending the better part of the day claiming and holding seats near the House chamber’s center aisle, in hopes of getting shown on national television, or perhaps even shaking hands or exchanging a few words with the president. One wonders how their constituents would feel if they knew that their representatives were little more than political groupies. Unsaid is that for many of these lawmakers, it is the only personal interaction with the president they will ever have.

 
"Journalists will solemnly pronounce that this speech is critical for President Obama because of blah, blah, and blah"

This is the way it always goes, regardless of who the president is, whether he is a Democrat or a Republican, or whether Congress is of the same party, in opposition hands, or divided. It is inevitable. On my deathbed—hopefully many, many years from now—this will be on the long list of hours that I will wish I could retrieve and spend doing almost anything else, even watching old television reruns.

The truth is that State of the Union speeches are almost always dreadful and boring. Any of us can count on one hand the few that were not. For me, President Clinton’s 1998 SOTU speech was a notable exception; the Monica Lewinsky scandal had broken just days before and all eyes were glued to televisions, wondering whether Clinton would have the imprint of a frying pan on his head, or appear at a loss for words in such a horrific circumstance. Instead, he gave a terrific speech, leaving even his worst critics shaking their heads. How could someone deliver a speech that well, that coolly, under such pressure? Few of the other SOTU speeches have been even remotely so memorable.

There generally has been a pattern for presidents that fewer Americans watch each of their SOTU speeches than the year before. For Obama, the trend has been an absolute rule: The numbers have dropped each year. This pattern makes sense if you think about it. At the beginning of year six, there usually isn’t a lot that a president can or will say that people would find very interesting. Indeed, one could write a movie screenplay about second-term presidents titled They’re Just Not That Into You Anymore.

At this point in his second term, President Reagan’s approval rating was at 63 percent. His standing remained quite high until the Iran-Contra scandal broke just after the 1986 midterm elections, dropping 15 points in just a week or so and eventually falling to 43 percent. His numbers hovered in the 40s until June 1988—his last year in office—at which point they began to climb again, ending up at 63 percent, where he was just before the scandal. Clinton’s numbers, which had peaked at 73 percent at the end of 1998, were at 60 percent at this point in his presidency, and remained around the high 50s and low 60s, despite the scandal, for the rest of his presidency. His period in the ratings cellar was in his first term, having dropped into the high 30s once in 1993 and again in 1994, leading into the Democratic Party’s disastrous midterm election.

Obama’s second-term numbers are thus far tracking closely with those of George W. Bush, who was plagued with an unpopular decision to invade Iraq and criticism over his administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. Bush was—and Obama is—running around 43 percent in recent Gallup polling at the six-year mark. Bush went on to drop into the high 20s during his last two years in office. Through Jan. 26, Obama’s Gallup job approval was 41 percent, with 52 percent disapproval; other recent polls have shown the president’s approval as high as 46 percent.

Coverage of the State of the Union address is one of the few times when the media is playing along with the politicians. Print journalists want their articles read, so they hype up the importance of the event. Television and radio producers, along with correspondents, want their broadcasts seen, so they play things up as well.

The president’s party will talk about how great the speech was, and the opposition party will counter with how bad it was. Most people will just yawn and wish they hadn’t wasted over an hour of their life watching something that they will remember little of a week later.

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