“The Constitution’s mild requirement has become a tiresome exercise in political exhibitionism,” the columnist George Will wrote this week, calling the speech “the most execrable ceremony in the nation’s civic liturgy, regardless of which party’s president is abusing it” as a “made-for-television political pep rally.”
Conor Friedersdorf, a liberal writer for The Atlantic, complained that the message has become “a banal, risk-averse, scattershot speech that could be cancelled without any great consequence,” in part because tradition calls for it to address “so many subjects that nothing deep or lasting can be said about any of them.” In this sense, Obama was true to form, voicing support for such motherhood-and-apple-pie (but not easily achievable) causes as equal pay for women, good mental health care for veterans, greater access to early childhood education and affordable college.
The limitations of the speech’s hodge-podge genre have not stopped the media from investing the annual ritual with outsize importance. Indeed, for at least a couple of decades, the Washington punditocracy has portrayed the State of the Union as a make-a-break, do-or-die, cliché-of-your-choice occasion for whoever happens to be the sitting president. News organizations (including this one) have capitalized on the hype to sponsor marketing and promotional events — countdown clocks, watching parties, after-panels, live-blogging — and have coined an ungainly acronym, SOTU, to sum it all up.