President Obama’s State of the Union Speech: A Guide to the Press Coverage

In the State of the Union, the clichés come as thick and fast as the policy proposals, and the press tends to forget about the substance overnight. Howard Kurtz on how to navigate tonight's coverage.

In early excerpts of his State of the Union released to the press, President Obama calls for a ban on earmarks and proposes a five-year freeze on federal discretionary spending—with an exception for security. "This freeze will require painful cuts," he warns.

Tonight, the clichés come as thick and fast as the policy proposals, and the press tends to forget about the substance overnight. Howard Kurtz on how to navigate tonight's coverage. Plus, chat live with The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz during the State of the Union address.

It is, by all accounts, a turning point.

No, it’s more than a turning point. It’s a defining moment.

And as such, the stakes could not be higher.

After all, if things don’t go well, it could be a missed opportunity.

All of the machinery is rolling into place to cast President Obama’s State of the Union speech as a signal event—indeed, history in the making. The commentators offering unsolicited advice, the leaking of suitable tidbits, the luncheon for network anchors, the pomp and ceremony all combine to elevate the ritual to iconic status.

Then the president gives the speech, the prognosticators chew it over for a couple of days, and everyone forgets about it.

This is not to deny that pressure will be mounting as Obama prepares to address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. Indeed, some might say—since you’ve got to have something to say—that the fate of his presidency hangs in the balance.

These addresses tend to be forgettable because they are cobbled together from laundry lists pushed by every faction of the bureaucracy. But that can be a positive thing, former White House aides say, in terms of imposing discipline on government.

“The act of preparing the State of the Union forces people to think harder about priorities than they otherwise would,” says David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush.

John Avlon: Obama Should Propose Entitlement ReformMapping the SOTU SOTU Live Chat with Kurtz, McKinnon“In the Clinton White House,” says former adviser Paul Begala (and Daily Beast contributor), “we would start working on the speech in July—sending President Clinton on vacation with a binder overflowing with ideas that had been submitted by Cabinet officials, friends, academics, politicians.” Clinton, says Begala, “believed the State of the Union address was a governing document, it was an agenda-setting moment… So yeah, it’s a big doggone deal.”

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Dana Perino, Bush’s last press secretary, says it is the raft of proposals that are invariably “overblown. The media gets so bored with the new policies that within 48 hours they ask, ‘But what else is he going to try to do this year?’ In many ways, what voters said last November is, Congress—please do less.”

“The media gets so bored with the new policies that within 48 hours they ask, ‘But what else is he going to try to do this year?’” says Dana Perino. “In many ways, what voters said last November is, Congress—please do less.”

While the process undoubtedly spurs administration efficiency, it doesn’t necessarily produce spellbinding oratory. Every president seems to get bogged down in policy overload and programmatic detail.

The Constitution requires only that the country’s leader “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.” George Washington disposed of the duty the first time out in just 1,089 words. Thomas Jefferson, calling the practice “monarchial,” sent written messages instead; Woodrow Wilson made a personal appearance in 1913, and FDR cemented that as standard practice.

Harry Truman’s speech was the first to be televised (for those who had sets in 1947) and LBJ was the first to speak in the evening, in 1965, giving birth to today’s primetime extravaganzas.

But while the annual address gives a president a rare chance to hog the spotlight, the news coverage tends to cast each year’s version as a make-or-break moment.

“With his poll numbers down and Democrats fearing disaster in this year’s midterm elections,” The New York Times wrote last January, days after Scott Brown’s Senate victory in Massachusetts, “Mr. Obama is at a particularly rocky point in his presidency… He heads into his first formal State of the Union speech in a radically reshaped political climate from even one week ago.”

And how many people remember what Obama said a year ago?

Well, he noted that “I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone.” And he was mired in the health-care debate: “By now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics.”

Obama got his health bill, and judging by the loss of the House, where Republicans repealed the measure last week, he was right—it wasn’t good politics.

In the run-up to George W. Bush’s 2002 speech, the Times called the occasion “a fine opportunity for him to solidify his already sky-high popularity”—this, of course, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The president pledged that “our budget will run a deficit that will be small and short-term so long as Congress restrains spending and acts in a fiscally responsible manner.” Hey, how did that work out?

The point is not that presidents don’t always deliver what they promise; it’s that these speeches are fleeting snapshots that are soon rendered out of date.

Before Bill Clinton’s speech in 1994, the Los Angeles Times called him “a man in search of momentum. He needs it badly to realize his ambitious agenda for the coming year.”

For all the words, it was a gesture that lingered: “If you send me legislation that does not guarantee every American private health insurance that can never be taken away, you will force me to take this pen [and] veto the legislation.” Clinton needn’t have worried; no bill even made it out of committee.

The 42nd president was enmeshed in two other State of the Union dramas. In 1997, NBC and CBS went to split-screen coverage of the guilty verdict in O.J. Simpson’s civil trial. In 1998, Clinton held forth on policy for an hour without once alluding to the Monica Lewinsky scandal that had erupted days earlier.

Ronald Reagan unleashed the soaring rhetoric you would expect in 1982—“Don’t let anyone tell you that America’s best days are behind her”—but also speechified at a more prosaic level: “Our citizens feel they have lost control of even the most basic decisions made about the essential services of government, such as schools, welfare, roads, and even garbage collection.

The centerpiece of Reagan’s address was a proposal to transfer major federal aid programs to the states, which went nowhere. But he launched the tradition—by introducing Lenny Skutnik, who saved a woman after a plane crashed into the Potomac River—of spotlighting heroes in the audience.

Occasionally, a memorable phrase floats up from the rivers of verbiage. For Clinton, it was declaring in 1996 that the “era of big government is over”—way prematurely, as it turned out. For Bush, it was branding Iran, Iraq, and North Korea the “axis of evil” in 2002—more than a year before invading Baghdad.

And therein lies a trap. “Memorable lines are dangerous,” says Frum, who helped coin the phrase. “Memorable lines can harden into commitments you can’t fulfill. He asked to be measured by how well he was doing against the axis.”

So what expectations has Obama generated for Tuesday night? The New York Times says the president will be “striking a theme of national unity and renewal as he stresses the need for government spending in key areas and an attack on the budget deficit.

The Washington Post reports that “people briefed on the speech said Obama will look to invest in transportation and the nation's aging infrastructure as one way to create jobs and spur the economy.”

Politico says his aides “believe he’ll reach a broader audience with an emotional and patriotic appeal—one without the faintest whiff of partisan politics.

The Atlantic says Obama is likely to suggest that “the United States faces a ‘Sputnik moment,’ and the nation's global economic leadership position is in jeopardy unless his agenda goes forward.”

In short, the president will have to pivot to the center, offer a nod toward bipartisanship, manage to preempt Republicans on the economy, make a bow to the deficit, take steps to satisfy the base and recapture the magic of 2008—all while delivering a scintillating address.

Twenty-four hours later, we’ll all be on to the next media event.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.