The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations for State of the Union Addresses Has Got to Stop


I'm as guilty as the worst offender of treating annual State of the Union as beneath contempt, instantly forgettable, and worse.

It was George W. Bush—whose SOTUs were uniformly awful and misguided (cough, cough, Axis of Evil)—who talked about battling the "soft bigotry of low expectations" for minority kids in K-12 education.

But the same standard should apply to State of the Union addresses. Everyone fully expects them to be useless laundry lists of barely connected guaranteed-applause-getters (GAGS) punctuated with shout-outs to jes' plain folks who magically appear in the gallery for this one special night (when is a billionaire prankster in the tradition of Terry Southern's Guy Grand in The Magic Christian going to get a president to note Dick Hertz in one of these things?).

This has got to stop. I'm fond of saying that the tragicomedy of America is that we get the government we deserve.

And we deserve better.

There's nothing stopping a president from actually giving a substantive speech for the State of the Union (or even forgoing a performed speech altogether) rather than clearing out his office closet for every rag-tag idea that's been gathering dust. And stop with the least-convincing soft-feature anecdotes this side of an NBC Olympics broadcast. 

President Obama's speech last night was genuinely terrible, packed with empty boasts, fantasy policy prescriptions, and outright falsehoods. That doesn't make it stand out as a State of the Union address, it just makes it the same as all the other ones we struggle to recall from years and presidents past. If Obama really wanted to lead in a positive way, he could use the next three SOTUs to actually start a discussion about a single issue or topic—immigration, foreign policy, whatever—and then follow that up by trying to build a consensus in Congress and across the country. That sort of speech would not only be worth turning on but actually worth listening to.

Until that happens, Cafe Hayek's Don Boudreaux is right to characterize SOTUs as "political vaudevillainism" and, I fear, to tune out from such spectacles.