Are State of the Union addresses over-hyped?

For all the fascination, history shows the annual speech is seldom an accurate road map for the coming year

Topics: State of the Union, Barack Obama, U.S. Government, Media, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton,

Are State of the Union addresses over-hyped? (Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Every year, media pundits and observers spend weeks previewing the president’s State of the Union address, reading tea leaves and looking for leaks about which policy proposals might be included. They spend the hours after the speech analyzing its quality, looking not just for rhetorical flourish, but substantive policy goals. And they spend the next week or so going deeper into policy ideas, especially looking at the potential political implications of each.

And then we all promptly forget about them after a few weeks, when some new crisis demands our attention. Sometimes the promises are prophetic. Other times, whole task forces, proposals and novel ideas have been forgotten almost as soon as they were proposed. Or when the challenges of governing with an obdurate opposition inevitably arise.

In his sixth State of the Union address, emboldened by a balanced budget, President Clinton proposed taking 100 percent of the budget surplus and putting it toward strengthening Social Security. He made it the top priority of his final years in office, saying, “Let us make this commitment: Social Security first.” Of course, nothing came of the plan.

In 2005, George W. Bush announced a bold new plan to take on criminal gangs. “Tonight I propose a three-year initiative to help organizations keep young people out of gangs, and show young men an ideal of manhood that respects women and rejects violence,” Bush said. “Taking on gang life will be one part of a broader outreach to at-risk youth, which involves parents and pastors, coaches and community leaders, in programs ranging from literacy to sports. And I am proud that the leader of this nationwide effort will be our first lady, Laura Bush.”

The initiative generated a flurry of media attention and interviews with Laura Bush immediately following the announcement, but seemed to completely disappear from the public eye a few months later. Eventually, it morphed into a general youth initiative with squishy policy goals and little meaningful action.

When it comes to forecasting the future, President Obama’s State of the Union speeches have been no exception. So in the interest of trying to determine how much stock to actually put in what he proposes tonight, here’s a look at how prescient recent addresses have been in providing an accurate road map for the years ahead.

— 2009 —

Themes ranged from education and the environment, to counterterrorism and taxes.

Year of higher education: “And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.  This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.  And dropping out of high school is no longer an option.”

– Reality: Dropping out of high school is still an option in most states and there has been little legislative advancement on education. But he could argue he was merely using his bully pulpit to encourage Americans to act on their own, and he’s stuck by this call, drawing heat from Rick Santorum during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Guantánamo Bay: “That is why I have ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, and will seek swift and certain justice for captured terrorists — because living our values doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger.”

– Reality: Obama was never able to close Guantánamo, nor move most high-level terrorists into civilian courts.

Double renewables: “Thanks to our recovery plan, we will double this nation’s supply of renewable energy in the next three years.”

– Reality: Renewables were generating about 10 percent of American power in 2009 and only increased to about 13 percent in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available.

End Bush Tax cuts: “We will also end the tax breaks for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.”

– Reality: This has shown up in every State of the Union since. It took him four years, but Obama finally ended some of the Bush tax cuts in the fiscal cliff deal passed late last year. But instead of raising taxes on those who make more than $250,000, the cutoff was set at $400,000, affecting only the top 1 percent of Americans, not 2 percent.

—- 2010 —-

Themes ranged from the economy and environment, to war and bipartisan comity.

Community bank help: “So tonight, I’m proposing that we take $30 billion of the money Wall Street banks have repaid and use it to help community banks give small businesses the credit they need to stay afloat.”

– Reality: Congress passed a bill later that year to help small businesses that contained this provision, but it likely was not very effective.

End tax breaks for outsourcers: “To encourage these and other businesses to stay within our borders, it is time to finally slash the tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas, and give those tax breaks to companies that create jobs right here in the United States of America.”

– Reality: This too has shown up in almost every  Obama State of the Union, and in plenty of speeches on the campaign stump, but has gone nowhere. Even Democrats are wary of it, saying they would prefer to consider a comprehensive reform of the tax code.

Climate change: “It means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America. I am grateful to the House for passing such a bill last year. And this year I’m eager to help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate.”

– Reality: One of the most disappointing failures of the Obama presidency. The House passed an ambitious cap-and-trade bill in 2010, thanks to the politically damaging votes of dozens of moderate Democrats, some of whom lost their seats because of it that November. But it was all for naught when the bill failed in the Senate. Some blamed the myopic focus on healthcare reform.

Bipartisanism: “I’d like to begin monthly meetings with both Democratic and Republican leadership. I know you can’t wait.”

– Reality: Obama promised to change the culture in Washington with his election, with this being just one attempt at it, but the meetings quickly fell by the wayside after only a few confabs. Republicans dismissed the meetings as political theater, while Democrats said Republicans were too close-minded for anything productive to happen.

End the Iraq war: “We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August.”

– Reality: One of Obama’s greatest foreign policy accomplishments; he successfully wound down the Iraq war ahead of schedule.

DADT repeal: “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It’s the right thing to do.”

– Reality: Another huge accomplishment for Obama and Senate Democrats, who rammed it through in a jam-packed lame duck session of Congress at the end of 2010.

— 2011 —

Themes ranged from education and taxes, to immigration and Social Security.

Green energy investment: “We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”

– Reality: Republicans killed this and almost every other green energy proposal to come out of the White House since the stimulus package, seizing on the collapse of Solyndra as evidence that clean energy is a boondoggle.

Oil tax breaks: “And to help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies.”

– Reality: Democrats have tried to end the $4 billion in subsidies and tax breaks to oil companies every year of the Obama presidency and failed every time.

100,000 teachers in 10 years: “And over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.”

– Reality: It’s hard to tell as it’s too soon to say, but the White House seems to think it’s on track and has re-upped the goal for the second term. A group led by the Carnegie Corp. of New York has taken up the challenge and partnered with big tech companies and other to raise funds.

Immigration: “I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows.”

– Reality: Obama did nothing substantive on immigration reform in 2011, but took major executive action in 2012 to give the children of undocumented immigrants legal status and is now working on comprehensive immigration reform.

Tax reform: “Tonight, I’m asking Democrats and Republicans to simplify the system. Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field. And use the savings to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years –- without adding to our deficit. It can be done.”

– Reality: So far, there’s been little meaningful tax reform, though leaders of both parties say they want to do it this year.

Social Security: “To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations.”

– Reality:  Democrats flirted with cutting benefits via the chained-CPI last year, but abandoned it after a backlash from liberal activists. Republicans want to raise the eligibility age or privatize the plan. So far, nothing has been done. But Obama has recently signaled a willingness to revisit chained-CPI.

—  2012 —

Themes ranged from education and energy, to foreign policy and financial accountability.

Merit pay for teachers: “Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones.  And in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn. That’s a bargain worth making.”

— Reality: Obama and congressional Democrats never really took on education reform last year, introducing no significant legislation or even talking much about it.

Stay in school until 18: “So tonight, I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.”

– Reality: As with merit pay, education reform was a non-issue last year. Maryland passed legislation requiring students to stay in school until 18, bringing the total number of states to do so up to 22.

Tuition: “At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July.”

– Reality: After a lengthy fight, Congress extended lower interest rates for federally subsidized loans.

Oil and gas: “Over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I’m directing my administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.”

– Reality: Obama has opened up more oil and gas drilling on public lands, and last week, petroleum exports hit an all-time high while imports hit their lowest level since 1997. But Obama was stymied in his promise to open 75 percent of federal lands to drilling when Republicans killed his proposal in July and replaced it with their own, largely so they could continue to attack the president on energy issues.

“Living wills” for banks: “So if you are a big bank or financial institution, you’re no longer allowed to make risky bets with your customers’ deposits.  You’re required to write out a “living will” that details exactly how you’ll pay the bills if you fail –- because the rest of us are not bailing you out ever again.”

– Reality: The FDIC finalized its regulation on the “living wills” a few days before Obama’s State of the Union last year, and banks unveiled their wills in July. Still, critics say the idea is largely symbolic and won’t do much to diffuse systemic risk.

Federal reorganization: “The executive branch also needs to change.  Too often, it’s inefficient, outdated and remote. That’s why I’ve asked this Congress to grant me the authority to consolidate the federal bureaucracy, so that our government is leaner, quicker, and more responsive to the needs of the American people.”

– Reality: This became a key issue early last year for the Obama White House, which wanted to merge agencies like the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of Commerce, but it went nowhere when lawmakers and others voiced opposition. Ironically, Jeffrey Zients, the Obama aide who drafted the plan, is now likely to be nominated to head the trade agency that he wanted to eliminate.

Domestic nation building: “Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home. There’s never been a better time to build, especially since the construction industry was one of the hardest hit when the housing bubble burst.”

– Reality: This was never going anywhere from the get-go, thanks to Republican opposition, and the half and half idea seemed to fade away immediately. Obama did propose including $50 billion in infrastructure spending in early round of fiscal cliff negotiations, but that was quickly jettisoned when the GOP objected.

Veterans: “And tonight, I’m proposing a Veterans Jobs Corps that will help our communities hire veterans as cops and firefighters, so that America is as strong as those who defend her.”

– Reality: Chalk up another one to Republican opposition. In September, Senate Republicans shelved the plan, objecting to its $1 billion price tag.

Trade: Tonight, I’m announcing the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trading practices in countries like China. There will be more inspections to prevent counterfeit or unsafe goods from crossing our border.”

– Reality: Obama signed an executive order the month after the speech last year to creating Interagency Trade Enforcement Unit.

Mortgage abuse crackdown: “And tonight, I am asking my Attorney General to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorneys general to expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis. This new unit will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans.”

– Reality: Obama created a task force, and appointed New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to head it. It filed a number of civil suits against big banks, such as JPMorgan, but has come under continued scrutiny for its lack of criminal prosecutions.

Mortgage help: “I’m sending this Congress a plan that gives every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage, by refinancing at historically low rates.”

– Reality: Obama’s plan went nowhere in Congress when Republicans objected to the price tag, but he’s rumored to now be considering action via an executive order, which could be announced tonight.

The point of the State of the Union, as explained in Article 2, Section 3 of the Constitution, is for the the president to “give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Today, any president and his administration do this every single day as a matter of course, and the president can choose moments to unveil new proposals that better suit his needs.

At the time of the framing, lawmakers spent little time in Washington and had difficulty communicating. But today, the concept may be more ceremonial and theatrical, than realistic or informative.

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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