Matthew Sanders: State of the Union? 'It's complicated'

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 13 2013 9:55 a.m. MST

President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

J. Scott Applewhite, AP

People across the world increasingly "like" or "unlike" things presented them by friends, companies and causes they follow on Facebook. They can also choose one of 11 relationship status options — ranging from married, to single, to widowed, to civil union.

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama declared, "Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger." He didn't, as Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush before him, affirm that the state of the union is "strong." In essence, the president crept up to the statement and declared what we all would put on our national Facebook page as our union status, "It's Complicated."

CNN reported that 77 percent of those polled had a somewhat- or very-positive view of the speech. But here's the catch: Only 12 percent of the participants were Republican. Instant polls like these aren't meaningful. For a president, the "Like" feature is measured by approval ratings from national polls. It turns out that the State of the Union speeches rarely make a difference in approval, and Obama's +1 bump is statistically insignficant.

It's unfortunate people tune out the State of the Union, which, regardless of political persuasion, is one of the soaring triumphs of our constitutional republic. Once per year we have duly elected or appointed representatives from all three branches of government in a historic chamber. The procession and ceremony are an impressive part of our national heritage. Whether the rhetoric thrills or galls you, it is an important annual moment as an American.

Why is it complicated? The United States is painfully divided on many issues, and the president further made a surprisingly strident case for his proposed policies and programs. After a divisive and battering election, I would have hoped Obama would turn his vaunted communication skills toward conciliation and unification.

Perhaps some shy away from the speeches because we are so divided at present. The speeches often carry carefully articulated positions and numbers spun to gird up the president's narrative of success and appeal for support. I won't attempt to agree with or refute the facts in the president's address. For that, I'd recommend the Washington Post Fact Checker as a help to cut through the hazy rhetoric.

Instead, I'll offer a run through the speech and indicate a few points where I would click "Like" or "Unlike" and offer some reasons why.


We are citizens. It's a word that doesn't just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we're made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.

Why? He painted a real picture of our responsibility to one another.


We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.

Why? He used elevating language fixing us on the ideal of self-governance. He acknowledged the challenge of doing so.


Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit.

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