Your Guide To Not Watching the State of the Union

How the pre-speech spin and counterspin tells you everything you need to know.

President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign rally at the Kissimmee Civic Center September 8, 2012 in Kissimmee, Florida.
President Obama speaks at a campaign rally in Kissimmee, Fla., in September.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The State of the Union is the most predictable, rote, pointless exercise of pomp in American politics. That’s good news for you. The pre-speech period, roughly 24 to 48 hours of spin and leaks, spoils the policy details that’ll be remembered when the speech is complete. (I say “policy” because they obviously can’t predict which lawmakers’ eye-rolls will make the Top 10 .gif lists.)

Based on my own close reading of this stuff, here’s what will be happening in the House of Representatives tonight.

Obama blames Republicans for things Republicans actually did, which will be seen as unfair. The White House’s on-the-record guff to reporters has been notable for only one thing: its snark. It was not enough for White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer to give Politico’s Mike Allen a preview of the speech. He had to gild the lily, prederiding the “Beltway lens of the reporters who cover it and the pundits and politicos who tweet about it.” (Pfeiffer just cracked the 43,000 mark in Twitter followers.) This White House both understands that Republicans are trying to undermine it and fails to explain how they do so.

In 2012’s State of the Union, for example, Obama promised to create the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group to go after banks more aggressively. The group fell to pieces on the launch pad. In the litany of ways that the administration failed to attack the foreclosure crisis, this ranks low, but it’s instructive—Congress never appropriated the money to staff it. “I think part of our frustration in the first four years,” said White House consigliere Valerie Jarrett on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “[was] often times seeing Republicans putting their short-term political interest ahead of what is in the best interest of our country.”

The president might make that point by mentioning the bills and nominees held up by Republicans in, respectively, the House and the Senate. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats will hold an exasperated news conference on the GOP’s filibuster threat against a possible director for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It’s the sort of process whine that would get more attention if the president signs on.

Republicans ask why Obama’s still not endorsing their bills. The House Energy and Commerce Committee, which wasted most of the last term looking for a scandal in the Solyndra bankruptcy, pre-empted Obama by challenging him to discuss the Keystone XL pipeline. In their words (written in the first person but not actually attributed to any member of the committee), the pipeline was like a magic lamp wrapped in a magic carpet: “With recent incidents of terrorism and unrest across the globe threatening energy prices, and negative economic growth and stubbornly high unemployment here at home, the Keystone XL pipeline would seemingly be a blessing and welcome component in any effort to rebuild the middle class.” And it’ll rid you of that stubborn belly fat!

An emotional appeal on gun rights grips America. In all of the soft-focus stories on the speech’s invited guests, two names matter: Ted Nugent and Gabrielle Giffords. Texas Rep. Steve Stockman, an embarrassing member of the class of 1994 who lost in 1996 but managed to come back in 2012, has invited Nugent to attend the speech, despite Nugent being (humorously!) on record threatening the president’s life. Giffords, invited by Sen. John McCain, is the most compelling figure in the gun control (sorry, “gun safety”) movement. Democrats know that the mere sight of Giffords, or the sound of her voice, spurs a Pavlovian response: The listener cannot help but hear and think about ammo clips and background checks. Stockman knows … actually, there’s no way to end that sentence.

Republicans accuse Obama of ignoring the debt, while basically agreeing with his approach to it. In his first State of the Union speech four years ago, the president returned again and again to the crisis of national debt. Washington, he said, had “responsibility to ensure that we do not pass on to [our children] a debt they cannot pay.”

That was $5.2 trillion ago, and Republicans will shame him for every dollar. “The debt has a direct impact on unemployment,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, sort of mystifyingly, in a Weekly Standard preview of his response to the speech Tuesday evening. “Every dollar that is being lent to the government is a dollar that is not being invested in our economy.” The Washington Post’s preview of the speech warned that the White House says the president won’t say much more about debt, because “if policymakers can agree on a strategy for replacing across-the-board spending cuts set to hit next month, Obama will pretty much have achieved what he has called ‘our ultimate goal’ of halting the rapid rise in government borrowing.”

But Republicans and Obama agree on the concept. Getting to a balanced budget, someday, isn’t a matter of austerity anymore. If the economy grows, the deficit shrinks. Rubio told the Weekly Standard that a “pro-growth” policy would generate “an additional $4 trillion in revenues over the next decade.” Anyone with a basic grasp of math and chart-reading can see that the deficit is already shrinking, even before President Rubio gets his hands on it.

Obama tells a horrendous, sub-Tosh.0 quality joke. He always does this, in bold defiance of his lack of comedic timing. (His funniest writer, Jon Lovett, left years ago to create a sitcom.) Last year, he took credit for the elimination of a regulation that was classifying dairy spills as disasters akin to—and as expensive in court as—oil spills. “With a rule like that,” he said. “I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.”

Whatever joke Obama tells, it will be followed in the transcript with the annotation “(laughter and applause).” Don’t believe everything you read.