Rarely have State of the Union addresses moved public opinion, and rarely have they led to the kind of broad legislative accomplishments that presidents propose. For all the ritual and attention surrounding these speeches, the State of the Union is, well, sort of lame.
“Most of the speeches can be summarized in three words: boring, boring, boring,” said Allan Lichtman, author of “The 13 Keys to the Presidency.” “They tend to be laundry lists. But sometimes they rise above that.”
Mandated by the Constitution, the State of the Union, for much of its history, was not a speech at all but a written list of policy recommendations handed to Congress. Now, the addresses are grand political theater and provide a rare chance for a president to make an unfiltered argument and lay out policy ambitions from the biggest bully pulpit he will have all year.
Billed as a coda to his second inauguration, Obama’s speech will focus on the economy and the middle class — he is set to propose spending public money on education, research and infrastructure — as well as touch on immigration and gun control.
He will spend the remainder of the week giving repackaged versions of his address, looking to capitalize on the moment and further underscore his priorities.
“The State of the Union is a Super Bowl-like political event. The key to fully leveraging it is to make sure that it doesn’t become a one-off but contains a big-idea thematic animated by some specific proposals,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked for President Bill Clinton. “If the speech is not approached like that, it risks becoming a pupu platter moment — lots of tasty dishes, but you won’t be filled up for the long term.”
Although interest groups and lobbyists, inside and outside the administration, spend time trying to get the briefest of mentions of their pet causes in the speech before an audience of about 40 million, there are few legislative payoffs to show for all their efforts.
President George W. Bush used the first State of the Union speech of his second term to call for privatizing Social Security, an effort that hit a brick wall in Congress and nationwide.
In his 2012 speech, Obama proposed that every state require that students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18, a recommendation that also fell flat.
Obama used that address to make his argument for reelection, touching on themes of fairness and economic equality that would undergird his campaign stump speeches. But there have been few memorable lines or themes from Obama’s addresses on par with Clinton’s 1996 pronouncement that “the era of big government is over” or Bush’s “axis of evil” reference from 2002.
“His speeches have tended to be about half looking back and half looking forward. And that’s a style you can choose in a State of the Union — how much of the speech is going to be devoted to where we are today, how far we’ve come and so forth, versus something more visionary and using your time to look forward,” said Chriss Winston, a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. “That’s a choice every president has to make.”