Why should you watch President Barack Obamas State of the Union address Tuesday? In a video released by the White House, chief of staff Denis McDonough makes the case: It is an important moment when the policy that influences the fabric of the American experiment is shaped.
Never mind that Obama will be trotting out many of the same agenda items as last year, ideas Congress blocked or ignored. Lets dispense with some myths about the speech.
1. The State of the Union must be delivered orally to Congress. The Constitution requires the president from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient. George Washington established the yearly precedent in his First Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union on Jan. 8, 1790. Though Washington presented his message in person, that aspect was quickly killed by Thomas Jefferson, who was uncomfortable with public speaking and rationalized that giving a speech from the throne was too like a monarch. He sent written reports by messenger, as did the next 24 presidents, until Woodrow Wilson revived the speech in 1913.
2. The president and his speechwriter write the address. The last time this might have been true was during the Kennedy administration, when Ted Sorensen would have conferred with the president before writing the speech longhand on a yellow legal pad. Usually, though, the process involves legions of people. When I was a speechwriter in the Ford White House, the writer assigned to the speech briefly met with the president, drafted the initial language and worked with a team of researchers to insert the facts. The speech was then staffed to appropriate Cabinet officers for their input. Bureaucrats sometimes suggested stylistic changes to parts of the speech not relevant to their areas of expertise, which was terribly annoying. There was plenty of unsolicited input, too, throughout the process. All White House speechwriters still vie to write the address, because its so high-profile, but they hate the process.
3. It is by necessity a long laundry list. Everyone, from Cabinet members to members of Congress to lobbyists and activists, wants their causes mentioned. The speech can go on forever trying to cover every last aspect of the presidents agenda and appease every interest group. Especially susceptible was Bill Clinton, who tended to cover 74 issues in 74 minutes. But it doesnt have to be that way. Ronald Reagan was more disciplined, developing his State of the Union addresses thematically freedom in the world, revival of the economy through free markets, strength of civil society. If an item didnt fit those themes, he left it out. He also managed to keep his speeches to 40 minutes.
4. The state of the union is always strong. Strong, stronger and strongest have been the preferred adjectives of the past five presidents to describe the state of the union. Strong is a tempting word, Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet explained. Its simple, declarative. Its alliterative. And it had the added benefit of being accurate. George W. Bush speechwriter Matthew Latimer defended the use of the word, saying: If presidents before you said that the state of the union is strong, you say that its strong. ... Otherwise someone is going to say, Why didnt he say that the country is still strong? But that part of the speech hasnt always been so formulaic. Lyndon Johnson said the union was free and restless, growing and full of hope. John Kennedy declared that the state of this old but youthful Union, in the 175th year of its life, is good.
While its understandable that the occupant of the White House would try to put the best face on the situation, the State of the Union address hasnt always been so blindly optimistic, either. James Buchanan declared in December 1860, four months before the Civil War began, that the Union of the States, which is the source of all these blessings, is threatened with destruction. Andrew Johnson said in December 1865, the year of Abraham Lincolns assassination: Candor compels me to declare that at this time there is no Union as our fathers understood the term, and as they meant it to be understood by us. The bleakest modern assessment came from Ford, who amid the recession in 1975 admitted: I must say to you that the state of the union is not good: Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high, and sales are too slow. It wasnt what his audience wanted to hear, but, as Kusnet would say, it had the benefit of being accurate.
5. The State of the Union is a presidents most consequential speech. State of the Union addresses are among the most-watched speeches, attracting tens of millions of TV viewers. They involve plenty of theatrics. Yet these speeches have remarkably slight impact. Little of the legislation proposed in them gets passed. Remember Bushs call for privatizing Social Security? Obamas push for gun control after Sandy Hook? Rather than being persuaded by the speech, members of Congress sometimes chafe at passages where the president claims credit for accomplishments that they perceive were really theirs. State of the Union addresses dont do much to persuade the public, either. According to Gallup, they rarely affect the presidents approval rating. Presidents are far more likely to have meaningful impact on emotions, beliefs or policy with speeches addressing a crisis (Reagan after the Challenger explosion, Bush after Sept. 11, 2001, Obama after the Tucson shooting), speeches about taking the country to war or getting out of one, or speeches focused on a single issue.
Smith is a communications professor at California State University, Long Beach, and author of Confessions of a Presidential Speechwriter.