Stephen M. Walt

Why the State of the Union Speech doesn’t matter

As someone who cares about politics and uses words for a living, I suppose I ought to be more interested in tonight’s State of the Union address. Pundits and politicos are in the usual lather about it, either predicting or prescribing what Obama will or should say. I’m sure plenty of people will live-blog it ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

As someone who cares about politics and uses words for a living, I suppose I ought to be more interested in tonight’s State of the Union address. Pundits and politicos are in the usual lather about it, either predicting or prescribing what Obama will or should say. I’m sure plenty of people will live-blog it tonight, and then spend tomorrow doing the usual array of post-mortems.

But I’m feeling more like Eliza Doolittle: "Words, words, words. … I’m so sick of words." I say that because I don’t think this speech is going to make much difference one way or the other. It will be mostly about domestic priorities (possibly justified by the need to compete more effectively abroad), and foreign policy is bound to get short shrift. Given the dearth of major foreign policy achievements, I’d say that’s both predictable and wise.

But what will the speech accomplish? It’s not going to tame House Republicans, or make obstructionist Senators more cooperative. Neither the Tea Party nor Fox/News (a wholly owned subsidiary of the GOP) is going to be won over by the president’s words, no matter how eloquent he is or how effectively he triangulates. His oratory won’t alter the calculations or conduct of the Taliban, sway the governments of Iran, or China, or turn Hamid Karzai into a popular and effective leader. And even in the wake of the Tucson shooting, I doubt that eloquent pleas for greater bipartisanship and a more civil discourse will end the vitriol on talk radio and in the blogosphere.

What matters isn’t what Obama says tonight, but what he and his advisors, and the Congress ultimately do. The achievements of his first two years (such as health care, and rescuing the U.S. economy from the abyss), were based not on speeches but on a lot of gritty, messy, sausage-making policy work. By contrast, some of Obama’s more conspicuous failures (the Middle East peace process, the half-hearted "opening" to Iran, and the Afghan quagmire), featured high-flying and well-delivered acts of oratory but were followed by ill-conceived or poorly implemented policies.

So I’ll probably watch the speech, but I’m not expecting much. And my guess is that a couple of weeks hence, most of us will have forgotten about it.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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