SOTU 2011: What’s the point?

The State of the Union can be one of the most important political events of the year. The President has an opportunity to outline his agenda, to highlight his priorities, and to set the tone for political debate for the next months. And while President Obama continues to show his oratory prowess, I was disappointed in the speech overall. Obama seemed to forget one of the most important rules of making a good argument (and really, that’s what this speech should be) – having a clear and central point.

There were several individual points that were well-made and well-received. I enjoyed his opening: I think he struck the right tone in talking not only about the tragedy in Arizona, but he also scored a dead hit in explaining so much of the anger that the populace seems to be feeling. As he put it, people are angry because they feel like the rules have changed in the middle of the game – and this analogy seems adept. He reminded us, for a brief moment, of the empathy and the understanding that made him so appealing in 2008.

Yet too soon, his speech became overtly political. And I have no problem with that generally – the State of the Union is meant to be political.  But the biggest problem of the speech is Obama tried to do too much. He addressed an unwieldy number of topics and issues: from frustration and anger at the economic situation, he moved to cover the need for green energy, changes in educational policy, immigration, investment in infrastructure, health care reform, debt, tax cuts…the list goes on. While he attempted to create a narrative – that all of these issues need to be addressed to assuage anger and ensure our future – instead it sometimes seemed like a laundry list of what needs to be done.

While I’m interested in hearing the president’s position on all of these issues that face our nation, the State of the Union is not a place to do so. The president needed to set a clear agenda, pointing to those few key issues that he wants to start by focusing on. And so, despite watching his speech for an hour, I’m left wondering: what’s Obama’s vision for the next few years? What does he see himself focusing his energies on? Ultimately, what was the take-away message, or in other words, what’s the point?


  1. I have no data to back this up (an interesting study!), but my gut reaction is that Obama talked about fewer initiatives last night than most presidents do during the SOTU. So I’m not sure he really could have talked about any fewer. It’s supposed to be a sweeping speech.

    But your underlying point has merit.

  2. And I had the absolute opposite impression! I felt like this speech, more than any other in recent memory, ranged such a variety of topics that I didn’t get a good sense of any of them. My best example is that at one point, Obama said something about the need to “take on” Medicare and Medicaid – but that’s pretty much all he said. I think he’s brave in addressing the problems in what are two of the government’s most popular programs, but by bringing them up without presenting any concrete ideas, I think he risks scaring people and giving the other side ammunition.

    We should do a study at some point to see how many issues presidents typically raise during the SOTU. Or at least see if someone else has done it! It would be an interesting comparison for this argument.

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