Don't Expect Too Much From Obama's State of the Union Speech

Most of these reports to Congress are notable only for being forgettable.

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The funny thing about the State of the Union address is that after it’s great build-up and huge pomp and circumstance, it usually amounts to very little that endures. It’s a good road map for the government in terms of priorities (or, in election years, a road map for re-election), which is why there is such fierce lobbying behind the scenes just to get a mention of a program into it. But that is also why the speech is often a crashing bore, because it becomes a laundry list.

[Read Robert Schlesinger: Scenes From Writing the State of the Union.]

Think back: How many memorable moments have State of the Union speeches given us? There’s FDR’s “Four Freedoms” (1941), Truman’s “fair deal” (1949), JFK’s promise to send a man to the moon (1961, in a special “second” State of the Union), Reagan’s use of the first lady’s box to feature special guests (Lenny Skutnik in 1982), Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over” (1996), and George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” (2002). That’s six examples drawn from eight decades of the modern presidency. And for each of them there’s a “new federalism” (Nixon), “new foundation” (Carter, though Obama kept snatching it), and “Sputnik moment” (Obama, last year), memorable only for being forgettable.

[Read State of the Union trivia and history.]

That dearth of lasting moments is a huge part of the reason why, as Gallup noted last year, the speech usually has virtually no effect on a president’s approval rating.

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