Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The State of the State of the Union (Part I)

By Dan Gerstein

Over the last few years we have had much fun partaking in the pre-game chatter around the State of the Union with our fellow speech junkies, and we had every expectation of doing the same with the 2012 edition. But a funny thing happened on the way to Statuary Hall this month—instead of pundits, we heard crickets.

Indeed, this has to be the least hyped or talked about SOTU I can remember since the dawn of the digital age. We have been tracking the commentariat pretty closely the last two weeks, and outside of a few scattered obligatory preview pieces in the political press in the last few days, there has been none of the usual build-up of buzz. No splashy front-page curtain-raisers on the President's big new proposals, no political Page 6 gossip about who will be sitting in the First Lady's box, no profiles of the speechwriters toiling in the shadows.

One telling barometer of this year's snooze-a-palooza is how Politico's Playbook, the political insider's bible, has played the speech Monday and today. Normally, in the last two days before the SOTU, it's the topic of conversation in Washington, but in Monday's Playbook there was not one item devoted to the event; today's edition led with an announcement from Bill Gates and several items related to the Republican debate in Florida last night and Mitt Romney's tax returns, before getting to a post-speech preview from a White House official and a couple small speech tidbits.

Even more notable, though, has been the lack of interest in and engagement by the speechwriting community. Unlike past years, when speech blogs were offering a steady stream of pre-SOTU analysis and viewing tips, those sites have been relatively silent on the subject over the past two years. Vital Speeches, Pundit Wire—not one post on either industry-leading blog about the SOTU in the last week (and we are just as guilty here). What was once seen as our Super Bowl has been greeted like a preseason scrimmage.

That's got us more than a little curious. Is this a temporary reflection of the moment and this particular contextual combination—Obama's tenuous political standing, the White House's low-key approach to the speech, the riveting circus of the Republican presidential campaign (can tax reform really compete with open marriage revelations)? Or, or as savvy Politico columnist Roger Simon recently suggested, is it part of a larger pattern/trend around the SOTU as an institution itself?

We invite our fellow speech pros to weigh in with their thoughts—in particular about the long-term implications for our profession. We'll share those insights and judgments in a post-mortem piece later this week.

Gerstein is President of Gotham Ghostwriters and a regular political analyst on Fox News.

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