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With Little Political or Policy Impact and Dumbed Down Language, Does the State of the Union Even Matter?

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Alamy
Alamy

Not to spoil the party or anything, but does the State of the Union address even matter?

Let's look at the facts. The venerable SOTU has little if any effect on presidential popularity. Few of President Barack Obama's major proposals, presented with such fanfare in previous addresses, have gone anywhere. And the speeches themselves, as a new survey published in the Guardian demonstrates, are clearly dumbed down from addresses by his predecessors.

So they don't mean much in terms of political impact, they don't mean much in terms of policy impact, but they do stand as major artifacts of the devolution of our intellectual discourse.

Aside from that, they're fabulous.

Fortunately, Obama has other ways to express himself.

Gallup Poll surveys indicate that the State of the Union address has had little if any effect on Obama's political standing and personal popularity.

The reality is that his job approval rating changed little after each of his first three State of the Union addresses. The popular reaction to the first two was flat; the third speech resulted in a 2-point increase. Which is within the margin of error of the poll, meaning there may have been no increase at all.

But this phenomenon of little to no political impact is not just a problem for Obama. It's been the case for his three most recent predecessors -- George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush -- as well. This, despite the massive media coverage and breathless commentary that surrounds the institution of the State of the Union.

So much for political import. What about policy import?

The reality is that much if not most of what Obama proposed in past State of the Union addresses went nowhere.

The Buffett Rule, for those making a million or more a year to pay at least 30% in taxes? Never introduced.

A climate change program? Mostly a non-starter, dropped in favor of the complex and controversial national health care bill. And greenhouse gas emissions have gone up.

Investigate the mortgage crisis that helped give rise to the financial meltdown? Far short of expectations.

Reduce the federal budget deficit by half? Uhh ...

Re-inflate deflated credit markets by using $30 billion repaid from the Wall Street bailout for community banks to lend to local businesses? Only a small fraction of that has happened, with capital remaining largely on the sidelines in this anemic recovery.

Reform corporate taxes? That's gone nowhere.

Reorganize the federal government? Hasn't happened.

Big new infrastructure programs at home funded by savings from the Iraq and Afghan Wars? Hasn't happened.

Increase the number of college graduates to a world-leading 60% by 2020? Our trajectory is nowhere near that.

If you think that the quality of pubic discourse has declined, beyond the problem of nasty hyper-partisanship, you're right.

The Guardian has a very revealing feature on presidential State of the Union addresses. It indicates that the language employed in these flagship addresses is of a markedly lower level of sophistication now than it was in the past.

The rating utilizes the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, ranking each SOTU in US history by US school grade level.

President Barack Obama's 2012 State of the Union address was at grade level of 9.0. Which is to say that it was pitched to be understood by an average 9th grader. That's a freshman in high school.

In contrast, Obama's predecessor, the frequently derided George W. Bush, pitched his addresses at a 10.0 level. That's an average high school sophomore, marking a drop of a full grade level from the Bush II Administration to the Obama Administration

Before W, there was Bill Clinton, at grade level 9.8. Which means that the level of sophistication dropped nearly a full grade from the Clinton Administration to the Bush II Administration.

Ronald Reagan? His addresses came in at the 10.4 grade level.

John F. Kennedy clocks in at 12.3, Franklin D. Roosevelt at 12.4, Dwight Eisenhower at 12.6, with language much more sophisticated than what we are getting today.

The scores for presidents before the modern era are higher still. Abraham Lincoln, for example, born 204 years before Obama's latest State of the Union, presented addresses at the 14.6 grade level.

But that's due in part to how archaic the language seems. Of course, the language of the past is archaic in part because it's been, wait for it, dumbed down over time.

America has serious issues to deal with, many of them raised by Obama in his laundry list State of the Union addresses. But let's not pretend the State of the Union itself is not an empty institution -- bloated, hollow, self-congratulatory, increasingly shallow, largely irrelevant.

A lot of sound and fury, to paraphrase an English writer, signifying, well, you know the rest. Even though it's above the current Grade 9 level of our political discourse.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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