In the Arena


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I especially hate the day before the State of the Union message because….every last interest group in Christendom, including the Jewish and Islamic ones, sends out e-missions about what the President really should say about everything from junk food to oil subsidies. And the New York Times inevitably collects a dozen of the usual suspects to make modest suggestions about themes the President should strike, which inevitably are their own entirely predictable hobby horses. And people like me talk about what the President has to do in his speech in order to thrive politically; we are almost invariably wrong, so I’ve pretty much stopped doing it. Here are some other things that are inevitable:

1. The President will say that the state of the union is strong, even though it isn’t quite.

2. The post-speech pundits will say the speech was a laundry list that went on too long; the public will react favorably, nonetheless, in the snap polls.

3. The Republican response will be underwhelming (as the Democratic response is, when there’s a Republican President). Can’t we dispense with this empty ritual already? (Although it will be sort of interesting to see how wonkified Paul Ryan, tomorrow’s victim, is willing to get.)

4. The speech won’t be as important as everyone claims it will be. Really important SOTU speeches happen in tense times–Bush whispering his obvious intention to go to war in 2003 (I was in the room that year and he barely raised his voice); Clinton actually showing up in 1998, a few days after the Lewinsky thing became known…Or in re-election years: Clinton’s 1996 speech, with the line, “The era of big government is over,” set the tone for his reelection campaign; I expect Obama’s speech next year will attempt to do the same. I don’t remember Clinton’s speech after he got clobbered in the 1994 elections. I don’t remember Obama’s speech from last year. Unless something remarkable happens, I don’t think I’ll remember tomorrow night’s speech for very long, either.

5. But it’s valuable nonetheless. It’s a progress report. You get to see what the President thinks is worth mentioning and what is not–sometimes the latter is as telling as the former. You get to see which of the above-mentioned interest groups has the stroke to get its pet project mentioned in the speech. The SOTU is the beginning of the political season: the President moves his pawn and the game begins. This year, as in most, the most interesting play will occur later on, probably in the autumn, when the President and the Republicans see if they can compromise on spending, or not. In any case, I’ll abide by my own ritual and assess the speech after it’s over, in my print column this week.

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