The State of the Union is ... boring?

Tens of millions of Americans are expected to tune in to President Obama's State of the Union address. The dirty little secret surrounding these events is that, for all the anticipation and coverage, they are usually snoozers.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama waves as he walks down the West Wing Colonnade of the White House on Tuesday, hours ahead of the State of the Union address on Capitol Hill.

Let's be honest: The State of the Union – the speech, not the condition of the nation – is usually pretty dull.

For all the hype that typically surrounds the president's annual address to Congress, the dirty little secret among most political reporters is that the speech itself is often a snoozer. Too long, too laden with nods to various interest groups, containing too little that's really new or ever likely to become law. And President Obama's address Tuesday night will probably be no different.

In general, State of the Union addresses are remembered for being "laundry lists" rather than memorable or inspiring bits of oratory. And because this will be Mr. Obama's fourth official State of the Union address (and his fifth speech before a joint session of Congress), it's pretty unlikely that we're going to hear much in the way of brand-new policy proposals that we haven't already heard about, in one form or another. Not to mention the fact that most of what he puts forward will have little chance of actually getting through the Republican-led House, anyway.

Last weekend, on "Fox News Sunday's Panel Plus," left-leaning analyst Juan Williams, in previewing the speech, said: "I think this has to be a bolder speech than we're accustomed to in terms of formal addresses the president has made to the Congress." He then confessed: "I don't really remember the first four. What I remember is things like people yelling out, 'You lie!' or [US Supreme Court Justice] Sam Alito mouthing, 'That's not true.' I remember all that. But I don't remember [what Obama said]."  

If you're in the same boat as Mr. Williams – and we're guessing most people are – it's really not your fault. The speeches just weren't that memorable. Here's a quick sampling of some of the reviews of Obama's previous State of the Union addresses:

  • In 2010, conservative blogger Michelle Malkin wrote: "Obama was supposed to set a 'new tone' in Washington tonight. Don't think he meant the tone to sound like snoring."
  • In 2011, Joe Scarborough, the conservative host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," proclaimed it "boring all around," adding: "I've never seen an audience as flat or a president as flat as this."
  • In 2012, Fox News's Brit Hume called Obama's speech "boring," and conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote: "What Obama offered the nation Tuesday night was pudding without a theme."
  • Of course, those were all Republican critics who were, obviously, not Obama fans to begin with. But while left-leaning analysts and members of the mainstream media have tended to be somewhat less blunt in their critiques, many of them also clearly found Obama's previous State of the Unions lacking in interest and excitement (in other words, they thought the speeches were boring, too):

    • In 2010, Obama's own Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano, was famously caught appearing to nod off during the speech. Afterwards, The Atlantic's Josh Green wrote: "I don't see this being any kind of pivot point, catalyzing event, or even a speech that will have a lasting impact." Jonathan Chait, then writing for The New Republic, commented: "I wondered if his budget freeze had already claimed the entire White House speechwriting staff."
    • In 2011, NBC's David Gregory reported the speech "felt flat," adding: "The reaction was polite, but hardly rousing." Melinda Henneberger, then at Politics Daily, said the speech "reminded us that everyone needs an editor."
    • In 2012, comedian Jon Stewart ribbed Obama for mentioning the killing of Osama bin Laden at the start of the speech ("You opened with 'I killed bin Laden'? Does Rick Springfield open with 'Jessie's Girl'?") and offered some sympathy for a spilled milk joke that fell painfully flat: "As someone who does comedy for a living: been there."

    In 2012, the University of Minnesota conducted an analysis of the past 70 State of the Union addresses and found that Obama's three speeches were all measurably simpler in their use of language, with shorter sentences and more monosyllabic words, than those of any other modern president – coming in at an eighth-grade reading comprehension level.

    Sometimes, simple language can be compelling. Just not, it seems, when it comes to State of the Union addresses.

    Of course, this year may be different – if nothing else, we'll have rocker (and gun rights advocate) Ted Nugent sitting in the audience to liven things up. But we're not exactly holding out hope. 

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