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The State of the Union: When Style Is Substance

• January 27, 2014 • 10:00 AM

2011 State of the Union Address given by President Barack Obama. (Photo: Public Domain)

During tomorrow night’s presidential address, actions will speak louder than words. With highly polarized parties at least through 2016, it’s not like any of Obama’s proposals are about to become law any time soon anyway.

This Tuesday night brings us President Obama’s fifth State of the Union address. For the record, my two favorite political media spectacles are SOTUs and election nights. Yet those are very different sorts of events. On election nights, we get data (votes and exit polls), and we hear pundits and politicians attempting (often poorly) to impose narratives on them. By contrast, the SOTU is all narrative. Pundits will attempt to graft some data onto it—approval ratings, snap polls, word counts, word clouds—but really, the story of the night is the pageantry.

Jonathan Bernstein has observed that media coverage of the State of the Union usually has it wrong, focusing on the president’s abilities to manipulate public opinion and set a tone for upcoming elections. In fact, as John Sides notes, the president has very little ability to change people’s opinions through a SOTU or any other speech. Oh, and given that we’re likely to have continued divided government and highly polarized parties at least through 2016, it’s not like any of Obama’s proposals are about to become law any time soon. What we should be focusing on is the ritual itself.

This year, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state will deliver the official response for the Republican Party—a clear attempt to impress female voters and introduce a promising legislator to the national scene.

Political scientist Clinton Rossiter famously described the president as “the ceremonial head of the government of the United States, the leader of the rituals of American democracy.” And the SOTU is one of those premier rituals. A State of the Union address is basically the only time where all the principal members of every branch of the federal government are together under one roof. The president and vice president, their spouses, the cabinet, the entire Congress, the Supreme Court, a large swathe of journalists, and a variety of distinguished guests can all be viewed at the same time.

The main part of the ritual is the very public interplay between the president and the Congress. Yes, it’s the president’s speech, but it’s not his event; Congress hosts it, and their responses to his pronouncements are at least as important as the pronouncements themselves. When all the Democrats stand and applaud while all the Republicans sit on their hands, that’s useful information to the home audience. It’s also useful to know when something is universally supported, or when a party seems split in its support for one of the president’s initiatives. As Dan Amira notes, it was regrettable when some members of Congress started sitting together across party lines a few years ago, as this muted the valuable party messaging. But it’s interesting to see who sits next to whom.

Matt Glassman had a memorable post about the SOTU a few years ago, noting that, while it’s a presidential speech, the event is all about congressional superiority:

What he says may or may not matter, but the way in which he says it sure does. He does not tell the legislature what he is going to do in the following year, for there is very little he can do. He tells the legislature what he believes needs to be done, and then he asks the legislature to do it. In the endless string of presidential debates it can often feel like the President has the ability to wave his hand and enact a policy. But the State of the Union Address reminds everyone that the President of the United States can no more make a law than he can walk on water; never is it more evident how our system of government works. The President comes and visits the Representatives of the people, and he pleads with them to do what he thinks is right for the country.

Finally, we get a useful bit of symbolism at the end of the president’s address when the Republicans will offer a response. Again, the precise content of this response only matters marginally, and it will likely be a restatement of the basic party principles of low taxes and distrust toward government action. But how those ideas are expressed, and by whom, are relevant. This year, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state will deliver the official response for the Republican Party—a clear attempt to impress female voters and introduce a promising legislator to the national scene. Yet Senator Mike Lee of Utah will deliver a response on behalf of the Tea Party Express, and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky will deliver one, as well. These SOTU responses may or may not differ substantively from each other, but the fact that there are three of them speaks volumes.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

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