State of the Union Now Mostly for Show

Speech has evolved into another round of partisan gamesmanship.

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The annual State of the Union address has become a made-for-TV extravaganza that leaves most Americans cold. With good reason. It's both an opportunity for a president to speak directly to the nation, but at the same time it's evolved into a bizarre Washington ritual immersed in gamesmanship, partisanship and bad fellowship.

President Obama is scheduled to deliver his fifth State of the Union address tonight to a national television audience and a joint session of Congress. His problem is that the House and Senate are so divided that he can't get much traction when he appeals for consensus. Partly because of this, the legislators' reaction to his speech will be a mindless exercise, as it has been for presidents of both parties for many years. This time, Obama's fellow Democrats will applaud and cheer all his major points, and the Republicans will remain silent or express disapproval.

The rest of the routine is easy to predict, and relatively few Americans care about it (in fact, viewership of the State of the Union has declined every year under Obama). The president will make promises that will be very difficult or impossible to keep. His rhetoric will be forgotten by the end of the week. There will be occasional boorish behavior from the legislators, sometimes taking the form of jeers or other interruptions.

 

The president will acknowledge the "heroes in the gallery": people chosen to sit with the first lady who represent issues, demographic groups or activities that the president wants to be associated with, in another example of political showmanship. The official response from the opposition after the president's address will be strained and often tedious. Actually, there will be three Republican responses this year, reflecting the GOP's fractured state.

President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 9, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

I've covered State of the Union addresses since 1987, and there have been few memorable lines from any of the five presidents who gave those talks. The best moments occurred long ago, when the president really had something to say, such as with Lyndon Johnson's declaration of a war on poverty in his 1964 State of the Union address, and Franklin Roosevelt's "four freedoms" speech in 1941.

[READ: State of the Union Preview: Energy and the Environment]

"The State of the Union address is rarely memorable," wrote Jeff Shesol, former speech writer for President Bill Clinton, on the New Yorker website yesterday. "How could it be? It's too shapeless to stick." Shesol added: "The speech is a misery to write--or, rather, to patch and stitch and slap together from fragments of past promises, pet projects, proud accomplishments, great goals, unfinished business, tired gestures, and cheap plays for applause. The State of the Union address is not really written by committee. It is written by flash mob--a sudden aggregation, inside and around the speechwriting offices, of White House aides, Cabinet secretaries, pollsters, and college roommates of the president."

I used to think these events were important ways for the president to inspire the country, motivate people to take action, and build consensus. No more. Despite all the media speculation about what it all means, the answer will be, very little.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and on Facebook and Twitter.