Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The State of of State of the Union Speeches and Responses

Last night's State of the Union was a remarkable event on many counts. It was not a particularly good speech, unless you believe that we need a lot of more government.  It was remarkable, in part, because with the response offered by the GOP it presented us with two views of where the nation should go.  (Note the Youtube videos of both speeches can be found by clicking on the highlight.)

But first some history.   Washington and Adams traipsed up to Capitol Hill and made the speech and then Wilson (trying to get out of the shadow of TR did too) but all the presidents between Adams and Wilson simply sent their remarks up for review.    FDR changed the name of this annual meeting to The State of the Union.  One other historical footnote - according to at least one source, the longest SOTU was given by Coolidge.

I bring up these facts with three things in mind.  First, for a good part of our history, this annual ritual was not deemed a media event.  The chart above, sent by a friend shows where many in the press (and probably most presidential aides - regardless of who is president - believe how the speech is thought out.  As a policy event, the SOTU is not important.   Most of what is said in these things is good for wrapping fish the next day.   LBJ's first SOTU had about the same number of promises that the President had last night but the country was in a different mood.  Typical of the overhype of the SOTU was the breathless headline in the Sacramento Bee - "Obama Offers Plan to Rebuild America."   Second, the role of responder (last night held by Senator Rubio) is a relatively new one.   One of my democratic friends huffed that the Senator seemed to not even listen to the President's speech.  Well, duh.   The role of this speech is not to do a point by point rebuttal.   This is not a presidential debate.   It is to lay out an alternative view of how government should function.   From my perspective Rubio did a superb job in that role.   He was clear and focussed on how his vision was different from the laundry list of new programs and spending that the President offered.  Many of the news stories covered Rubio's drink of water.   I actually listened to the speech - there were some great lines in the address.  Third, the contrast between the two visions is clearer than it has been for many years.  Obama's conclusion is that the state of the union is stronger (and will be stronger) because of more government - Rubio argued that more government will not make the country stronger (and indeed that our last crisis was caused in part by horrible policies from Washington).   If you cut away from all the nonsense that the media coverage tries to convey, that is a pretty good summary of where the American political system is today.

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