Don’t Watch the State of the Union

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

US President Barack Obama pauses before delivering his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on February 12, 2013 at the US Capitol in Washington. 
National Journal
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Charlie Cook
Jan. 27, 2014, 4:27 p.m.

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.