Every year it seems like the State of the Union address is twice as long as it was the year before, but thanks to U.C. Santa Barbara's American Presidency Project, we can see that it only seems that way.
Although modern State of the Union speeches are slightly longer than SOTUs were at the dawn of the republic, research by John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters reveals that U.S. jefes have not grown consistently more prolix. In fact, SOTU length grows and shrinks in non-linear fashion, with only one clear pattern emerging: Along with most other forms of American literature, presidential addresses became increasingly bloated from the late 19th to the early 20th century, with William Howard Taft's average word length of 22,614 making him both the fattest and the talkiest president in American history.
Another suggestive pattern: Speech length seems to go up in times of concord, peace, and plenty, and to dwindle during times of actual national crisis. This may be analogous to C. Northcote Parkinson's [pdf] observation that admiralty staff tended to shrink during wartime. If you look at presidents who sat in office during large or long wars (Madison, Wilson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush), all gave speeches that were shorter than those of their immediate predecessors, their immediate successors, or both. In the case of Abraham Lincoln, whose Gettysburg Address retains its great power specifically because of its brevity and humble tone, that's probably not surprising. But it's still striking: James Buchanan's average word count is 14,097, Andrew Johnson's 9,551. Sandwiched between those windbags, Honest Abe manages to handle a civil war and the abolition of slavery with a speech length that averages 6,838 words.
Still, blather remains a concern. Barack Obama doesn't just seem like the most long-winded president since Bill Clinton—he actually is. And the two of them are the wordiest chiefs since our 30th, the inaptly named "Silent" Cal Coolidge.
Obama is even more alarming in specific subject areas. On education, Obama rambled on last night for more than 1,500 words, taking the hapless audience literally into outer space (with a potted history of post-Sputnik federal school funding) and through long parables about model schools and what our allies in South Korea are up to.
That's longer than George Washington's entire first State of the Union speech. As it happens, our wooden-dentured founding father also touched on schooling, with a wonderfully brief and on-point description of the public purposes of education:
To the security of a free constitution it contributes in various ways—by convincing those who are intrusted with the public administration that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people, and by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society; to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness—cherishing the first, avoiding the last—and uniting a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws.
It's the end of January, and the State of the Union is done for another year. But as Santa gets to work on next year's toys, it's not too early for Obama to start working on making the 2012 speech shorter.