Every January or February, the American media gathers to pretend that a ceremonial speech delivered by the president to a joint session of Congress is important, even crucial. By March, almost no one will rememember what the president has said.
This cycle of hype and forgetfulness is even more pronounced in second-term presidencies, as lame-duck executives announce major policy initiatives to indifferent voters and hostile congressmen, who tend to strangle such ideas in the crib.
Mining through the State of the Union archive can teach valuable lessons for those willing to learn. It's not just that presidential speeches all tend to sound the same, with their calls for "energy independence" and hosannahs to America's leadership of the free world. But the repeated failure of grand legislative schemes, the persistent references to underperforming areas of American life (usually in provinces, like education, that are dominated by the government), and the relentless rhetorical urgency to act now for the sake of action, all remind us that politics is a messy and generally ineffective way of addressing problems, and that politicians are not a small bit ridiculous.
Here's a tour through the last seven State of the Union addresses in the first year of second-term presidencies, assessed through the lens of their common elements. Not least of which is something that President Barack Obama will have a hard time matching: a full-throated celebration of how the White House has presided over an unprecedented economic boom.
Funny, we've never been so prosperous!
America's economy is the fastest growing of any major industrialized nation.
So this time we're really gonna balance that budget!
America's prosperity requires restraining the spending appetite of the federal government.
I welcome the bipartisan enthusiasm for spending discipline.
I will send you a budget that holds the growth of discretionary spending below inflation, makes tax relief permanent and stays on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009.
Retrospective laff lines:
I've appointed a bipartisan panel to examine the tax code from top to bottom. And when their recommendations are delivered, you and I will work together to give this nation a tax code that is pro-growth, easy to understand and fair to all.
Our men and women in uniform are fighting terrorists in Iraq so we do not have to face them here at home.
Big (failed) idea: Social Security reform.