About a week and a half ago, I watched President Obama address the nation while giving the State of the Union address. I watched with a group of people over at a friend’s house, on her great big high-definition television. At first I just stared hard at the screen, mesmerized by the fact that on this HDTV I could see each and every pore on Obama’s, Biden’s, and Boehner’s faces (I obviously don’t have a set like this at home), I settled in to listen to the content and was struck by one big realization:
I’ve heard this speech before.
I’ve been interested in politics for much of my life, and I love watching speeches and hearing politicians speak. When it’s Democrats talking, I love listening and agreeing (mostly), and when it’s Republicans doing the speechifying, I love yelling at the television with strong – ahem – words of disagreement. I like going to public forums and hearing local officials speak, I like being in small meetings with legislators and hearing what people have to say about health care and jobs and unions, I like sitting around a table or at the bar and talking until the talking is done, about all kinds of political realities. This stuff entertains me. Which is to say, basically: I’ve seen a speech or two in my time. And I’ve watched every state of the union address for at least the past twenty years, maybe even longer. And I’ve heard this speech before.
To clarify, I’m not talking about some strange telepathy or supernatural prognostication. Nor am I describing a sense of déjà vu. No, what I mean is that all of these speeches, as different as the content may ultimately be – Democrat to Republican, Conservative to Liberal thought – these speeches all follow a specific thematic outline that varies very little from event to event. It goes something like this:
- Open with an acknowledgement that something bad has happened to us as Americans in order to make us feel united. Nothing like a little martyrdom to warm our Puritanical hearts. This year, it was the Tucson tragedy. Last year, the financial (read: foreclosure) crisis. For several years prior, it was any of the various wars in which we were (are) engaged. We listen to this part of the speech, and we feel a sense of coming together as a nation: bad things happen to us, America! But we will get through them, yes we will!
- Talk about how great everything is. This is the one that can really get frustrating, when the speaker is from a different political persuasion than the listener. Here is where the President (or whatever talking head is up there) is talking about how good things are, which is really code for what a great job he or she has done. This part often leads to muttered, under-the-breath cursing and television-ward “gesture tossing.” These gestures can be complimentary or incendiary, depending on the degree to which your personal political believes alight with the speaker’s.
- “But We Can Do Better” Lest we fall into the trap that there isn’t work to be done (i.e., lest the politician fall into the trap of not admitting that things could be different and then getting eviscerated on the cable news shows for being out of touch), this is the part where we are reminded that we have to work hard to bring about the true manifestation of our combined national desire: to be bigger, better, smarter, and richer than the rest of the world. This specific want is shared by members of all political parties. Some of them couch it differently than others, but it’s all the same thing: we as Americans need to do this in order to dominate that. This year, Obama displayed this as he continually used the phrase “winning the future” while intermittently describing other countries that have somehow surpassed us in learning or economics (Russia, China, etc.).
- The other side is preventing us from doing better. No political speech would be complete without blaming the other side. We don’t know how to talk about our differences in any other way. President Obama referenced the health care debate and used it to open up a valid concern about a Republican-led House refusing to compromise on any issues. [An aside – I call this a valid concern because the Republican leadership, during last fall’s campaign, said they would not compromise on any issues.] This is the part of the speech where everybody watching nods their heads: those who agree are, well, nodding in agreement, and those who disagree are nodding because they just knew this was going to happen, the part where their party gets crapped on by the ruling party.
- Boo! My favorite part. Okay, now everybody is all het up in one way or another from the speech. Tempers are hot. Rancor fills the air. Lines are drawn; sides are chosen. This is when the good address-giver – and in American political tradition, every President while giving the State of the Union – reminds us that we are all in mortal danger and the only thing that stands between us and certain (painful) death and/or annexation by the current “axis of evil” is the American Government. This year, President Obama reminded us about how dastardly Al Qaeda is still plotting against the US, and is still a very real danger.
- “There, There” This one is really an extension of the prior part of the speech. Immediately after everybody gets really frightened about the terrorist attack (or nuclear bomb or fighter planes or Russian spies or whatever is the generational fear du jour), the speaker gathers our fragile souls to his or her chest, strokes our hair and assures us that they are doing everything to protect us, and will not let harm come to our great nation. Which rolls nicely into…
- We ARE the Best! Greatest! Strongest! Fastest! Winningest! (Insert superlative of your choice here!) Good things are happening. We work together. Sometimes we don’t, but we should. There are bad things that happen, but we will protect you. And America is great. America is wonderful. And God Bless America.
And that’s the speech. Seven easy pieces to be mushed and molded and heated and reheated and served to the American public on a silver platter each and every January. Manipulative? Heck yeah. Effective? Oh, most definitely. Because each and every year, we tune in; each and every year, we listen, have opinions, criticize or defend. Talking heads go on about the speech for days and newspapers make it their front-page story and everybody forms an idea, positive or negative, about the direction of our country based on 90 minutes of the same old song. Maybe it’s spoon-fed drivel that ultimately doesn’t mean much, regardless of the tenor – it’s legislation and enforcement and our judicial system that really creates (or prevents) change or progress – but it’s our spoon-fed drivel, and we’re used to the taste.