Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Grading The State of the Union Address

STATE OF THE UNION addresses always receive the scrutiny of pundits and politicians, but they rarely fall in the lap of a writing professor the way a student paper might. To be sure, a state of the union speech is no freshman essay, but a long talk from a lame duck president is not unlike a final paper from a graduating senior who knows he's about to graduate. The only thing missing is the end-of-the-semester kegger, but then again, no one parties like the GOP. If you crash the White House's website to read the full text of the speech (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/01/20030128-19.html), you will notice the inviting all Republicans in the West Wing after the talk for Jaeger shots in Dick Cheney's office.

So, if we look at the president's talk through a pedagogical lens, what do we see? As a teacher, the first thing I notice is the repetitive phrasing and nearly cliched deployment of big but empty phrases. In all fairness, tradition demands the president present his state of the union to congress, but we all know his true audience is the world. Every rhetor knows to direct his text to his true audience, keeping in mind what they expect and what it will take to make them sympathetic to his message. So, the false front of the U. S. congress creates a counterfeit setting--a kind of set--that disguises the real speaker-receiver.

All that aside, paragraphs two and three puff up the tone, but they say very little. Full of code words and tag phrases, the president tries to reassure his audience through a strange progression using the classic noun-verb-verb construction. Note how each paragraph moves forward in time (we have ____, we can _____, we will _____) maintaining a rhythm that makes us thing meaning is being conveyed, and yet, nothing specific has been mentioned. We have an opening, we can see where it is going, and we will likely, based on this, be disappointed.

If we return to our audience and assume it is not congress but the majority of the United States, we might expect the speech to address to the concerns of that demographic; what we might call middle class concerns. At present, 90% of the country makes less than $100,000 per year, and they are likely very aware that if the economy is a tea bag, it is steeping in the warm cup of recession. They are thirsty, but they are afraid to drink. They are also growing increasingly impatient with rising health care costs, the wars in the Middle East, climate change, and the shrinking dollar. So, one way of evaluating how effective the president's speech actually is is to compare its content with the daily realities of its intended audience.

One of the great mysteries of the Bush presidency is his popularity among American demographics about which he knows very little. He is a bizarrely vague president; rarely able to be pinned down, rarely putting a fine point on anything, except the target of his arrows. But, there again, his targets are those most of us never aim at. The same holds true here. For instance, I could be wrong, but I don't think blaming global warming on unfair regulations or hitching the health care issues to the wagon of malpractice suits will make anyone cotton to him at this particular moment in history. Similarly, when given the change to reassure the American populace about the status of our troops in the Middle East, I'm not sure I'd give them: "We have the terrorists on the run. We're keeping them on the run. One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice."

Of course, we have and shall debate what, exactly, the terrorists are learning, just as we'll continue to pour over this particular flavor of "American justice." But, what does this tell us about the state of the union? What is going on with our country? What are people afraid of? What do we want, and what will we settle for?

If these questions are our grading criteria, we have to assign the president a C-. His speech is below average because it doesn't seem to jive with what most Americans say they care about. To his credit, the president mentions AIDS, health care, and drug addiction--which would have been great if he were reflecting on The Wire--but these topics only daub at the vast mosaic of American concerns and anxieties. In my count, education is mentioned only once. Once. And, that was a veiled reference to his failed "No Child Left Behind" program. There was no mention of inflation, the sub-prime fiasco, or a timetable to bring the troops home from overseas. Stagflation, thy name is 2008, and yet I know thee not. He loses a letter grade here.

Worst of all, in a president's final state of the union, after 7 years of steering the country through choppy waters, one would expect some sort of consummatory statement not simply on the voyage but a musing on what we have learned from our travels. One would hope our president might say, "After these seven years of listening to Americans, I have come to see the world this way." Or, perhaps, if he were a thinker, he might help translate the past and present into a vision of the future that is accessible to all Americans.

Instead, we were frequently served up oddly religious platitudes that many Americans (even Republicans) have admitted they are tiring of. The president gets points off for his closed-minded version of Christianity and his funky Old Testament rhetoric that has the effect of dividing rather than uniting. Similarly, audiences don't need to be told they are resilient; audiences need to be told what a plan is, what that is the plan, why it will work, and what their life will be like in the meantime.

Any good argument requires a statement of a thesis, assertions of that thesis, and evidence to back up those assertions. As though it were a metaphor for his entire presidency, Mr. Bush never really asserted a thesis tonight, which is why his points were nebulous, vague, and rehashed. Sophomore mistakes, but still, mistakes. It is unclear if it is better or worse for the American people that he'll never have a chance to revise.


  1. I think you mistake his target audience. By saying it's the American people, you have cast too big a net.
    In my opinion, in every speech I have heard Bush give, his audience is wealthy republicans. It's for the people who voted for him, the people that hand him bags full of cash and the people he hopes will vote for the next republican candidate.
    Also, from the tone, you can see he was also sending coded messages to democrats. You can call them warnings.
    For the last seven years, Bush has ignored a large percentage of Americans and focused on these subsets of our culture.
    Maybe that will change your grade for Bush.

  2. Fantastic piece, very well thought out and delivered. my colleague and i spent the entire morning going over the speech and couldn't put a finger on what bothered us most about it. your article put it in focus: bush has been in office for 7 years and still hasn't figured out who he's talking to and what's important to them. Maybe he should re-read his job description. And... the Constitution.

  3. Anonymous,

    You make an astute observation about him speaking to subsets. I think that's a smart reading of his piece and his presidency. As far as that affecting his grade, I think it means he would get A's from those people, but that relegates the larger audience of Americans to the margins.

    Thanks for your comment!

  4. Thanks, Jenny. I'm glad you liked the piece. Too bad he didn't site the constitution as a secondary source!

    Thanks for your comment . . .

  5. Saying he made sophomore mistakes is giving him too much credit. He's sub par freshman at best. Yale and Harvard are shamed forever by allowing this slacker to even graduate. That he was able to read what was written for him without flubbing half of the words is a miracle all unto itself. I doubt he understood half of what he said let alone enough to realize it was irrelevant and meaningless to the masses both here and abroad.

  6. I think President Obama did a fantastic job. all those who like him, will still like him, and those who hate him, will still hate. The republican party is the party of "NO", they'll never be on the President's side, because he's black, and they don't want him to get any credit, especially with the whole healthcare issue. Pres Obama needs to stop bending over backwards and just do what he has to do. republicans are just a bunch of haters. Go Obama !!