- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
The State of the Union Address has, in keeping with all things American, gone all steroidal on us. In what used to be a humble effort to meet a Constitutional requirement that was once fulfilled with a message from George Washington that was not much longer than this post, we now find an extravaganza with national television coverage, pundits commenting on the reaction of pundits, an official opposition response, its own logo and theme music on the networks, and a host of set pieces (like the First Lady’s box filled with notable Americans with heart-warming stories — this year, that’s means heroes and victims of the Tucson shooting.) It’s got just enough calculated drama and just as little connection to the day-to-day life of average citizens to actually be a reality show. The only problem is there is not enough drinking. (But we will take care of that shortly.)
In fact, typically, the State of the Union Address is the political equivalent of the Super Bowl: A mid-winter ritual that combines hype, meaninglessness and boredom in equal parts. If only the president’s address had good advertisements to liven up the action … but maybe next year… (I’d love to see the Budweiser Clydesdale’s take on health care reform.)
To help alleviate this, as a public service, let me offer the following score sheet. Simply watch (or listen to) the address and score per the instructions. Then see the key below to interpret the speech. The objective is to help determine whether the speech rises to the level of something actually newsworthy (not to mention worthy of the time of the president, his cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the news media and, most important of all, viewing audiences across America.) The scoring approach is simple: the president gets points for actually rising to the potential of the occasion and has them deducted for pandering, filling time, engaging in empty rhetoric, or worse. The score sheet is broken into several categories corresponding to different dimensions of the speech.
- Any mention that balancing the budget involves both real spending cuts and real tax increases together, add 5 points.
- Any mention that responsibility for U.S. competitiveness lies primarily with private citizens and private sector but that government has an essential central role to play, add 5 points.
- Any mention that he has actually made mistakes during his first two years in office, add 5 points. Enumeration of such mistakes with conclusions as to how he will do better, 1 point each.
- Listing more than 3 possible mistakes: start deducting 5 points for each. There is such a thing as too much honesty in one of these speeches.
- Any pandering or overplaying the Tucson tragedy card beyond dignified references to those in the box with his wife, deduct 5 points.
- Every reference to competitiveness that uses China as a foil and suggests the reason we must grow is to beat them or the way we must grow is to emulate them, deduct 5 points.
- For any mention of materially cutting defense budgets, add 5 points.
- For any mention of meeting or beating withdrawal deadlines from Afghanistan, add 5 points.
- For any mention getting tough with either side of the Israeli-Palestinian issue add 2.5 points. Both sides: 5 points. Introduction of any new idea that has not been mentioned in a previous State of the Union, 10 points.
- For any mention of committing to pass a trade measure, add 1 point. For Korea, Colombia, Panama, the Doha Round and any other (Trans-Pacific Partnership, etc.) all together: 5 points.
- For any statement offering specific sanctions against China for currency manipulation, IP policies, or unfair trade practices: 5 points.
- Any reference to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim’s sisters Kourtney and Khloe, deduct 5 points. Any implication that our policies in North Korea are actually working in any meaningful way, also deduct 5 points.
- Failure to claim credit for real progress on Russia with new Start treaty, withdrawal from Iraq, international economic coordination efforts that forestalled global market turmoil, even progress with Iran delaying their nuclear program, also deduct 5 points for each.
- Failure to acknowledge the precarious nature of the Eurozone and other factors that may threaten global recovery, deduct 5 points.
- Failure to address the increasingly complicated nature of the terrorist threat, deduct 5 points. Over-playing the 10th anniversary of 9/11: deduct an additional 5 points.
- For any mention of material cuts to entitlement programs: 5 points.
- For any mention of supporting broadly the recommendation of the deficit commission: 5 points.
- For any mention of explanation of difference between spending and investment and any more detailed program for investments in infrastructure: 5 points.
- For any mention of need to actually increase revenues to help balance the budget (that’s tax increases of one sort or another): 5 points.
- For any serious effort to reduce regulations impeding investment in creating jobs here in the U.S.: 5 points.
- For every time the president mentions a spending program without mentioning a way to pay for it: deduct 5 points.
- For every time the president mentions a spending cut under $10 billion as being material or implies the same: deduct 5 points.
- For every time the president implies that the recovery on Wall Street or the restoration of GDP growth is the same as a recovery for most Americans: deduct 5 points.
- If the president fails to mention the municipal and state financial crisis and at least one concrete way of dealing with it (like bankruptcy-like provisions for the states), deduct 5 points.
- If the president talks about strengthening education without any reference to a national curriculum, ending teacher tenure/focusing on merit promotions, using existing technologies to enhance teacher efficiency, or materially raising standards, deduct 5 points.
- For every mention of every specific idea designed to create jobs: 1 point. (See below. This could be a very high number.)
- For every mention of every specific idea designed to enhance U.S. competitiveness: 1 point.
- For every mention of civility: 1 point. (Also see below. Should also be a high number.)
- For every singling out of a good idea from the Republican side of the house: add 5 points.
- If he delivers the speech well enough to produce post-speech gushing from MSNBC: 0 points. Post-speech rants from Fox: 0 points. Post-speech gushing from Fox: 10 points. Mid-speech weeping by John Boehner: 10 points.
- Every time he goads or bashes the opposition in a visible way that undercuts the civility message: deduct 5 points.
- Every time he glares at Samuel Alito: deduct 5 points.
- If he announces appointment of non-Chicago resident Rahm Emanuel as Civility Czar: deduct 10 points.
- Every minute the speech is under 45 minutes, add 1 point.
- Every minute the speech is over 45 minutes, deduct 1 point.
- Every joke that produces bi-partisan laughter, add 5 points.
- Every comment that produces an outburst from an out-of-control Republican House member, add 5 points.
- Every minute over 2 that it takes him to make his way through the crowd to the podium, deduct 1 point. (Seriously, the only thing distinguishing this entrance from the Academy Awards red carpet is the absence of Ryan Seacrest and Joan Rivers. Inviting either of them to a future State of the Union: add 10 points.)
The scoring key is:
50 points or more: Rooseveltian (pick your favorite Roosevelt)
40-49 points: Reaganesque (or Truman-esque, you pick)
30-39 points: Kennedy-esque (pick your favorite Kennedy)
20-29 points: Eisenhower-esque (What he lacked in style he made up for in substance)
10-19 points: Clinton-esque (I’d rate him higher but I served then…don’t want to appear biased)
0-9 points: Bush 41-esque (He was a better president than his speeches)
-1-10 points: Carter-esque or Ford-esque (In the interest of bi-partisanship)
-11-20 points: Bush 43-esque (He was not as good as his speeches)
-21-30 points: Nixonian (It’s complicated…)
-31-40 points: James Buchanan-esque
Below -40 points: Introducing your next president, Mitt Romney
If this doesn’t work, try the State of the Union drinking game. This year’s key word is: civility. Any use of this word, a variant of it, or concepts associated with it, and you take a drink. Any bi-partisan applause, you take a drink. Any breakdowns in civility or displays of partisanship, you take two drinks. I say you’re unconscious even before those Americans who pass out due to boredom. However, if you seek an even quicker buzz, switch to the Advanced SOTU Drinking program where you can take a drink every time the words job or any employment related term or concept is mentioned. Don’t hesitate to share your colorful drinking game stories.