James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Watching the State of the Union Address

by James M. Lindsay
January 25, 2011

President Obama walks along the White House Colonnade today in Washington.

President Obama walks along the White House Colonnade today in Washington. (Larry Downing/courtesy Reuters)

President Obama goes before a joint session of Congress at 9 p.m. tonight to deliver the State of the Union Address. My colleague, Sebastian Mallaby, and I will be writing “First Takes” for CFR.org on the president’s speech. Sebastian will weigh in on the geoeconomic aspects of the speech while I get the foreign policy aspects. Assuming no technical glitches or writer’s block, our commentaries should be up on CFR’s homepage by midnight.

I can’t say I am excited to watch the speech. Most State of the Union addresses are deadly dull. (Quick, what was the theme of George H.W. Bush’s 1990 address? Bill Clinton’s 1994 speech?) The dullness stems partly from the laundry list nature of State of the Union speeches as presidents try to mention every topic that might interest some sizable bloc of voters. The tradition of members of the president’s party jumping to their feet every other paragraph to applaud the president’s good words doesn’t help much either.

But the dullness of most State of the Union speeches also owes to the fact that they seldom surprise. The White House typically lets the media know in the days leading up to the speech what general themes the president plans to hit. In that respect, George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address was an exception. His subordinates did not leak the fact that he would warn America of an “axis of evil,” and the surprise gave the speech much of its power.

The Obama White House appears to have followed the traditional script and given influential journalists everything short of the text of the actual speech. As the pre-speech analysis from the AP has it:

To a nationwide television audience in prime time, Obama will home in on jobs, the issue of most importance to the public and to his hopes for a second term. A smiling president looked relaxed and upbeat at the White House in a brief photo opportunity Tuesday afternoon.

Specifically, he will focus on improving the education, innovation and infrastructure of the United States as the way to provide a sounder economic base. He will pair that with calls to reduce the government’s debt — now topping $14 trillion — and reform government. Those five areas will frame the speech, with sprinklings of fresh proposals.

He will wrap it all under the heading of helping the United States to compete more successfully in the world — a “win the future” rallying cry that Obama’s aides hopes will resonate with both workers and business executives and bind the political parties.

A section of the speech will address standard foreign policy issues such as Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea. But don’t look for the president to make news when he talks about events overseas. He doesn’t want to step on his overall message that he is bent on creating jobs, cutting the deficit, and helping business.

So what should we watch for in the speech besides whether all nine Supreme Court justices attend? Pay close attention to what the president says about how he intends to cut the federal deficit. This is where the rubber meets the road. Everyone knows that the federal government cannot continue to gush red ink without potentially endangering the long-term health of the American economy, and with it, the long-term standard of living of the American people and the foundations of American power. Will the president propose only spending and hiring freezes, as he did last year? Or will he go beyond these band-aid solutions and propose a plan that addresses the deep structural causes of the federal deficit? That would mean taking entitlement spending head on. Given that most Americans don’t want to see entitlement benefits cut, I would wager that we get band-aids rather than major surgery.

What should you watch for after the speech? Look to see what number Neilsen gives Obama. His first State of the Union speech drew 52 million viewers. Last year his numbers declined slightly, to 48 million. That is still a large audience. To put those numbers in perspective, American Idol, currently the most popular show on television, attracts nearly 23 million viewers on a typical broadcast. So you can see why White Houses take the State of the Union Address so seriously. It’s the one time when a lot of Americans will put aside their normal indifference to politics and listen to what the president has to say.

(For you sticklers, yes, the 2009 speech officially was not a State of the Union Address, just a speech to a joint session of Congress. Given that the State of the Union Address is typically given as a speech to a joint session of Congress, the difference is lost on most of us.)

Now for some State of the Union trivia acquired after years of hanging out in libraries rather than bars and co-authoring an American government textbook:

  • Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution stipulates that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.” The Constitution says nothing about when the president should deliver the information or how he should deliver.
  • George Washington delivered the first State of the Union Address in New York City on January 8, 1790. Why New York? Because it was the capital of the United States from 1785 to 1790.
  • George Washington and John Adams delivered their State of the Union messages to Congress in person.
  • Every president from Thomas Jefferson to William Howard Taft sent his State of the Union message to Congress in the form of a letter. (The Monroe Doctrine was announced in a State of the Union message.)
  • Woodrow Wilson revived the tradition of Washington and Adams and delivered his 1913 State of the Union as an address to a joint session of Congress. Every president since has followed Wilson’s lead.
  • Calvin Coolidge was the first president to have his State of the Union message broadcast by radio (1923).
  • Harry S. Truman was the first president to have his State of the Union message broadcast on television (1947).
  • Bill Clinton was the first president to have his State of the Union message broadcast over the Internet (1997).
  • Until 1934, the State of the Union message was typically delivered in December rather than January.

I will post my analysis of the speech tomorrow. You are welcome to leave your assessments of the speech in the comment box below.

Topic Change. Anti-government protests in Cairo and several other Egyptian cities turned violent today. These protests may fizzle out, or if Tunisia is a trendsetter, end with Hosni Mubarak as the former president of Egypt. My good friend and colleague, Steven Cook, just happens to be in Cairo this week. At some point he will post his thoughts on his blog, “From the Potomac to the Euphrates.” But for those of you who are Twitter savvy you can follow his tweets on Twitter (@stevenacook) to get updates on the situation and a sense of what things look like on the ground.

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