Kent Bush: The keys to decoding the State of the Union address
The pomp. The pageantry. The politics. The promises. The participants.
From the sergeant at arms who proclaims the appearance of the president to the people positioned as props, the State of the Union offers a lot of sizzle but no actual steak.
The president’s State of the Union address is a lot like making a list of demands from your boss. You can ask for anything you want, but you only get what they want you to have.
Calling on Congress to codify out a catalog of concepts isn’t a recent phenomenon.
George Washington gave a 10-minute speech for his annual address. I love Washington – and not just because he gave short speeches and his face is on every bill in my wallet.
But Washington never gave a State of the Union address. Neither did Abraham Lincoln.
They titled their speeches “the annual message.” Thomas Jefferson didn’t give speeches at all. He sent his annual message as a written address.
One day a president will send the State of the Union message via social media.
But that day was not Tuesday, and Barack Obama couldn’t have squeezed that monstrous message into a tweet.
Obama did send the transcript of his speech out before his annual address began.
It was fun to follow along and see where he repeats lines or leaves out lines as the president sensed the emotional ebb and flow of the audience.
Many of the cute moments that Obama used to emphasize points were written into the script. All the world is a stage and Obama was playing the lead role Tuesday night.
There were three spots where he left the script and gave away the real theme of this year’s State of the Union address. Beyond the guests whose life stories put a face on the issues Obama emphasized, the real story was told where Obama left his prepared remarks.
The first major departure came after Obama said, “At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and healthcare inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years.”
At that point, the ad libber in chief said, “This is good news, people,” as he waited through one of the many contrived standing ovations.
Obama also left prepared remarks when he was talking about the need for Congress to do a better job of working for the American people.
“But here’s the thing - those of us here tonight, we need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making,” he said. But then Obama improvised, “We need to do more than not screw things up,” before he went back to his transcript comment, “We need to do more than just do no harm.”
But the greatest and most instructive ad lib of Tuesday night came when Obama was calling for better politics, bipartisanship and a search for common ground on even the most divisive issues.
His next comment both defined the issue and described why his high-minded goals won’t likely be reached by lowest common denominator lawmakers.
“I have no more campaigns left to run,” Obama said. At that point, several Republicans interrupted with applause of their own.
That is when the president’s funniest and most cringeworthy ad lib crossed his lips.
“I know,” he said sarcastically. “Because I won both of them.”
That comment was met with murmurs and uncomfortable laughter before Obama went on to ask Congress to join him in pursuing the broad vision he outlined Tuesday.
The speech contained several interesting ideas. Free junior college educations as universal as high school, security through diplomacy and disagreeing without demonizing those from competing parties are all noble goals.
But when Obama left his script he showed us more than his words from the prepared text could ever tell us. Belligerent gridlock is not only possible, but probable.
Obama’s 2015 State of the Union speech contained more than 6,500 words, but it was the few words he added off the cuff that provided more clues to what the next year holds than anything in the transcript.
Kent Bush is publisher of Shawnee (Oklahoma) News-Star and can be reached at email@example.com.