Ron Fournier (MSNBC)

The silliest State of the Union preview: Obama's success depends on pronoun distribution!

National Journal's Ron Fournier has outdone himself with his preview of Obama's penultimate State of the Union


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Jim Newell
January 21, 2015 1:25AM (UTC)

Here it is, loyal Salon reader: your much sought "Five Ways To Judge the State of the Union." For similar "Five Ways to Judge the State of the Union" pieces, try visiting any other website on the Internet.

1. Does President Obama slip and fall on his butt during the State of the Union?

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2. Does President Obama get into a fistfight with John Boehner during the State of the Union?

3. Does President Obama say "go fuck yourself, America" during the State of the Union?

4. Does President Obama vomit during the State of the Union?

5. Does President Obama announce via "executive fiat" that the government will hold all Americans prisoner in internment camps indefinitely during the State of the Union?

If the answer to any of these is "yes," then you can judge President Obama's speech a Failure because he will have gone out of his way to make a grievous mistake or humiliated himself. Otherwise, it's probably fine.

And fine is fine. The State of the Union isn't what it used to be. Fewer and fewer Americans watch it each year, because they see the president all the time, and he announces his policies and priorities all the time. This is not the olden days when you'd maybe see or hear the president a few times a year and you'd expect him to fill you in on The Plan. He is talking about his policies and priorities everyday to a 24/7 news cycle, and they change as circumstances change. President Obama recognizes that there's no need to play the old SOTU games anymore -- keeping all your big plans close to the chest until the speech for maximum impact. As Politico reports about the White House's thinking, the SOTU is now more about reinforcing what you're already working on than dropping a couple of bombshells.

But as for the State of the Union tradition of unveiling big announcements for a year-ahead agenda, Obama’s done with that. The country’s been done with that for a while, aides say, and the White House has finally caught up.

They believe they’ve now redefined the State of the Union model, not just for this year and next but for the next couple of presidents at least.

Most of what’s in the speech they’ll have already announced as part of Obama’s two-week lead-up tour. White House aides say that may be it — they’re not interested in making big legislative asks for the GOP to reflexively shoot down, nothing on par with last month’s surprise restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Landing the perfect tone or adjectival clause or paragraph sequencing in the State of the Union isn't the absolutely critical mission that it (arguably) used to be; a required annual speech won't shift the president's approval ratings as much as, say, broad economic conditions will. Just don't screw up, and then move on to the next thing.

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National Journal's Ron Fournier has a different Five Ways to Judge the President's Speech. He has compiled a guide to determining the president's "motives." Is the president hoping to make "progress" or play "politics" in his final two years? One of the key ciphers here, according to Fournier: pronouns. TABULATE THE PRONOUNS TO LEARN OBAMA'S SECRETS.

The pronouns: Count how many times Obama uses the words "I," "me," and "my." Compare that number to how often he says, "You," "we," "our." If the first number is greater than the second, Obama has failed. He needs to remember the lesson of Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign: Don't dismiss the 47 percent of Americans who disagree with him.

Fournier's other metrics include tone -- whether Obama sounds like a professor (SNOOTY) or a preacher (JOYOUS!) -- whether he mentions that the Democrats got pummeled in November, and if he calls for war taxes and/or national service programs (??). And then there's this:

Obama's plan to raise taxes on the wealthy and big banks to help lower- and middle-class Americans hits a political sweet spot. Populism is rising across the political spectrum, which means there are more areas of potential agreement than the White House or GOP leaders may want to acknowledge. Does the president, like Bill Clinton in the 1990s, express empathy toward the conservative point of view? Does he nod to potential compromises? His liberal backers don't want him to give an inch. So far this year, Obama has stiffed the GOP agenda.

Here's the problem with Fournier's approach, and generally with focusing too closely on what lines get inserted into the State of the Union or don't: if you want to know whether the president will or won't try to work with Republicans, read the news instead of parsing the text of a speech for pronouns. Will Obama work with Republicans to make "progress" on areas where they have overlapping interests? "Getting all of your Cabinet members to whip House Democratic votes" doesn't sound like the sort of thing you do if you're not serious:

President Obama is tasking every member of his Cabinet to round up votes from Democrats for fast-track negotiating power, which would give Obama leverage to complete trade negotiations by preventing Congress from amending his agreements.

About 80 House Democrats have been targeted in the effort, and Cabinet members are divvying up those names based on their personal relationships with the members.

The rest of the House Democratic Caucus, which consists of about 100 members, are seen as likely “no” votes.

The White House is making the push in part because of pressure from congressional Republicans.

This seems significant and a more concrete way to determine if President Obama is serious about working with Republicans where he can, even if it pisses off a significant element of the left. But we won't know for sure until we see that final pronoun count.

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Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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