The Slatest

Obama’s “Nontraditional” State of the Union Sounded Like Every Other State of the Union

“The hardest part is staying awake for the entire thing.”

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Obama’s team has spent the past month promising that Tuesday’s State of the Union address would be nothing like your grandpa’s fusty, old speech to a joint session of Congress.

“He’ll be very optimistic. He’ll be very action-oriented. But it won’t be your traditional policy speech per se,” White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said Sunday. “Going into the last year, I don’t think you should expect a huge, long list from the President of legislative to-dos,” one senior official told CNN about Obama’s address back in December. The president even released a trailer to plug the new approach. And the sales pitch actually kind of worked! The Washington press corps published many an article hyping this “nontraditional” promise.

So what did the speech end up looking like in the end? Well, it had a laundry list of policies Obama hoped to get done in his remaining year in office (from closing Gitmo to making college affordable for all), a recap of his past accomplishments as president (from passing the Affordable Care Act, to job growth, to having Osama Bin Laden shot in the head), a running list of generic American archetypes represented in the room by real-life people invited to attend, carefully crafted applause lines that were meant to elicit standing ovations from one side of the aisle but not the other, callbacks to previous campaign slogans, moon shots (Joe will cure cancer), and a rousing call for America to do better. He also mentioned that the State of the Union was “strong.”

So totally different from all other State of the Union speeches that have come before it except in nearly every respect.

Obama even began his speech by promising early that this wasn’t going to be a traditional one, and then quickly proceeded to do traditional things like promise to fight for a lame duck agenda that is dead in the water because of congressional opposition. “Tonight, I want to go easy on the traditional list of proposals for the year ahead,” he said, before listing a bunch of those proposals. “Don’t worry, I’ve got plenty, from helping students learn to write computer code to personalizing medical treatments for patients. And I’ll keep pushing for progress on the work that still needs doing. Fixing a broken immigration system. Protecting our kids from gun violence. Equal pay for equal work, paid leave, raising the minimum wage. All these things still matter to hardworking families; they are still the right thing to do; and I will not let up until they get done.”

Quick quiz! Which of the following did Obama say Tuesday night:

A. “America met one historic challenge and went to the moon. Now America must meet another.”

B. “We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon.”

Did you say A? Wrong! Quote A was Ronald Reagan in 1986 selling his “Star Wars” strategic missile shield “to make our strategic defense real for all the citizens of planet Earth.” (In fairness to Obama, his use of the moon trope was actually a pretty clever dig against climate denial. Still, leaning on the moon: It’s been done.)

Obama did close the speech with a bold call for across-the-board election reform, from nonpartisan districting, to campaign finance, to voting laws. But this also wasn’t nontraditional! In both the 2010 and 2012 State of the Union addresses, campaign finance reform was a theme. And two years ago, Obama made voting rights a key plank in his speech, announcing a “nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America.”

So even the big, original pitch at the end of Obama’s big, nontraditional last State of the Union address was an idea he already tried that didn’t go anywhere. Which all just demonstrates how boring, redundant, and futile the State of the Union has become. The next individual to hold this office could do us all a favor by simply not pretending like he or she is bringing anything new to the table. 

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the State of the Union.