For a long time, the laundry list seemed to be a built-in rhetorical weakness of the SOTU. It took Bill Clinton to figure out how to make it pay. His SOTUs were endless; they were also the most successful SOTUs of the modern presidency, measured in TV ratings and poll numbers. Clinton knew that Americans pretended to dislike the federal government—his famous declaration that “the era of big government is over” came in a SOTU. He also knew that Americans cherished the federal government’s comforts and blandishments.
So he aimed each item of his laundry list squarely at some micro-constituency. For those worried about disorder in the public schools, he offered grants for school uniforms. For those with a frustrating, congested commute, he offered new housing vouchers to buy a residence nearer to the workplace. If you thought your kids were watching inappropriate TV shows, the president offered to outfit your TV with a doodad called the V-chip.
Sooner or later, as the president droned on for 50, 60, 70 minutes, any viewer, however disengaged, was going to hear the president mention a difficulty peculiar to his or her own circumstance, and then announce a solution just for you.