At the State of the Union every year, news outlets salivate over what “message” the president will send, what "agenda" the White House will set for the coming year. For this year's installment, President Barack Obama will undoubtedly address the progress of healthcare.gov and changes to the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, but pundits expect the speech will focus on income inequality. While addressing these issues is important, the State of the Union often feels more like ideological oratory and less like a pragmatic, course-setting speech.
Sure, past addresses have delivered moments emblematic of their time: FDR's "four freedoms" speech, George W. Bush coining the term Axis of Evil in 2002, setting the stage to invade Iraq the following spring. But aside from their historical value, the addresses have little practical value. Lewis Gould made the case for abolishing the State of the Union in 2006, calling it a "frivolous moment of political theater and continuous campaigning." And the address has morphed into something entirely different from what the Framers originally envisioned, using it as more of a performance review for members of Congress than a political sermon:
For more than a century, when presidents transmitted their annual messages in writing to Capitol Hill, they felt compelled to review the work of the Cabinet departments, examine pressing social problems and recommend solutions. In most cases, these documents were anything but lively. A century ago, for example, Theodore Roosevelt devoted thousands of words in his message to railroad regulation, immigration, copyright laws, criminal justice and the civil service, among other topics. Newspapers published his annual message in full and political debate followed in Congress and across the country about what the president wanted to accomplish.
In the age of televised addresses and insta-reactions, Obama is unlikely to give such a wonky speech, unless he wants Joe Biden to fall asleep in his chair. The State of the Union's political value nowadays falls somewhere between a presidential debate and the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Despite tens of millions of people tuning in to watch it, the speech doesn't really affect the president's approval rating, and rarely do the issues addressed get resolved by the time the next year's speech rolls around.
But what do the promises and platitudes that get rehashed year after year actually mean? For your perusal, a glossary of clichés that may pop up during the president's speech, with corresponding translations:
"This is not about politics." — "This is obviously about politics."
"This isn't a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. This is an American issue." — "This is an impossibly vague idea on which to legislate."
"New efforts" — The same efforts as last year, only this time we really mean it.
"Bipartisan support" — Senate Democrats and Pat Toomey.
Describing a policy as having "hair on it" — Too complex to get into in a one-hour speech.
If Republicans give a standing ovation — The president has just said something so mind-numbingly unobjectionable—like giving babies the right to wear cute Halloween outfits—that they can't show disapproval without looking like monsters.
"Let me be clear" — "Under no circumstances will I be clear"
"The grit and determination of the American people" — "...to watch this entire speech."
"The state of our union is strong" — As George W. Bush speechwriter Matthew Latimer said, "If presidents before you said that the state of the union is strong, you say that it’s strong ... Otherwise someone is going to say, 'Why didn’t he say that the country is still strong?'"
"On both sides of the aisle" — [See: Bipartisan support]
"Let's see what Congress brings us" about immigration reform — "I can't push immigration reform too hard or the GOP won't touch it with a 10-foot pole."
Referencing the government shutdown — "Wasn't me."
Saying a policy won't increase the deficit "by a single dime" — "This is an inconsequential policy."
"We need to protect future generations" — "But for now, let them keep paying their grandparents' Social Security."
"Let's do what works" — "Let us now state the obvious."
The "wealthiest nation on Earth" should not have so much income inequality — "The nation with more billionaires than the next six countries combined hasn't been able to raise the minimum wage since 2009? Come on!"
"Deficit reduction alone cannot solve our economic crisis" — "Bugger off, Pete Peterson."
"Now is the time to get (X issue) done." — [see: "New efforts"]
Vaguely threatening Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — Next time you massacre thousands of citizens, we'll really be mad.
"I've directed the NSA to limit its metadata collection programs" — "...but what you don't know won't hurt you."
"Thank you. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America." — "Thank God I've only got two of these left."
Emma Roller is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at @emmaroller.