Menus Subscribe Search

What Makes Us Politic

sotu-address

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

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.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.