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The Irrelevant SOTU

Gene Healy makes a strong case that State of the Union addresses are useless:

The few enduring lines from past SOTUs stick out for irony value (Bill Clinton in 1996: “the era of big government is over”); because they herald a looming policy disaster (George W. Bush in 2002: “Axis of Evil”) — or for the rare outbreak of candor (Gerald Ford in 1975: “the state of the union is not good”).

But most years, the speech gets submerged in the churn of the news cycle, little noted and not long remembered. It’s unlikely that 2014 will be any different. In its modern form, the SOTU is a meaningless ritual that rarely even does the president — let alone the public — any good.

I’m inclined to agree. Other than giving the president an occasion to drone on for an hour or more, the State of the Union address usually just tells us things that we already know or confirms what we were already thinking. Even when the speech includes an announcement of a new policy initiative or action by the president, the public has usually already been informed what the announcement will say ahead of time, which makes the formal announcement rather redundant. Because of the ritualized nature of the proceedings, presidents rarely make unexpected announcements during these speeches. Partisans on both sides want to know in advance which parts of the speech they are supposed to applaud along with the parts they are supposed to greet with stony silence. While these speeches might theoretically be a political boon to the incumbent, they have little or no positive effect in advancing a president’s agenda or changing public opinion on major issues, and may even be detrimental to the president’s goals. Healy continues:

“There is overwhelming evidence that presidents, even ‘great communicators,’ rarely move the public in their direction,” writes George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. “Going public does not work.” In a 2013 analysis of SOTU polling, Gallup found that “most presidents have shown an average decrease in approval of one or more points between the last poll conducted before the State of the Union and the first one conducted afterward.”

If a president has been in office for several years already, the public’s attitudes about him and his policies have presumably already hardened to the point where there are few persuadable citizens left to win over. If his approval rating is below 50%, as it has so often been, most of the public is likely to be indifferent or hostile to what the president says.

P.S. In spite of all that, I will be covering the speech tonight here on the blog and on Twitter (@DanielLarison).

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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