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State of the Union addresses: So many words for so little action; Tonight, Barack Obama tries again

January 25, 2011 |  3:44 am

President Ronald Reagans state of the union 1988

A president's State of the Union address has by tradition come around halfway to spring on the American calendar, nearly coinciding with another regular rite of winter, Groundhog Day. One event involves a meaningless ritual in which we look to a creature of lesser intelligence for prognostication, while the other involves a groundhog. Hey-yoh.

As standard practice as the rhetorical ritual has become, the Constitution actually requires no such address. Article 2 Section 3 simply says: "The President shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." Nothing in there about primetime on a Tuesday evening preempting "NCIS," with days of preceding news leaks.

Two hundred twenty-one years and two weeks ago George Washington actually ....

... gave the first annual message to Congress. However, Thomas Jefferson deemed such appearances a tad too royal. So he sent a series of letters to Congress on various issues. His successors agreed. And so it went for more than a century until 1913, when Woodrow Wilson, no man of modesty, revived the grand appearance. (See photo below.)

With the advent of radio in 1923 and TV in 1947 the symbiotic commercial benefits to media and president of a major annual appointment event became inevitable.

A new Rasmussen Reports survey finds that most Americans (79%), especially women, are ....

Woodrow Wilson addresses Congress 1913

... at least somewhat interested in what President Obama will say tonight, down slightly from last year's numbers (82%). A new Pew Research Center poll found similar results.

But the same data show that more Americans (47%) accurately say the speech is mostly for show, while only 44% fall for the line about it being really important in setting national policy for the next year.

Few memorable historical matters have come from such remarks, which in modern times seem important on that day and through the next Sunday's talk shows.President Eisenhower addresses Congress 1957

Quick, what do you remember about Obama's State of the Union last year? Maybe that one Republican congressman yelling, "You lie!" Well, too bad, because that wasn't at the State of the Union.

Every administration uses strategic communications to prepackage these presidential messages. This year the Democrat sent out an alleged "preview" video to supporters last weekend to make them feel on the inside and start the buzz, like an advance movie screening.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday Obama would talk mainly about the economy. Others have tipped reporters that the president will not provide the usual laundry list of swell new projects. Change to believe in.

Instead, they suggest, he'll provide an optimistic broader overview, which conveniently provides less to measure Obama on come this time next year when Republicans will be busily picking their nominee.

This afternoon, playing on the media's eagerness for any hot news, the White House will release carefully selected excerpts chosen to help shape the initial impression in TV discussions. Other spokesmen will be available after to reiterate the themes.President Truman addresses Congress 1947

Wednesday, Obama flies to Wisconsin to repeat the Tuesday message and Vice President Joe Biden has been assigned to do the same in Indiana.

It's probably total coincidence that both places are battleground states for 2012 and Wisconsin is the home state for tonight's Republican responder, Rep. Paul Ryan, the new GOP House Budget Committee chairman.

This is all part of the president's effort to rebrand himself in time for the 2012 election, now just 651 days away. Think Toyota's sudden-acceleration crash problem a couple of years ago and how all you hear from them now is safety, safety, safety.

Obama started the image remake by permitting volatile, profane Rahm Emanuel to leave last fall, just in time to avoid blame for Democrats' Nov. 2 midterm shellacking. Obama feigned reluctance over the December tax-cut extension with Republicans, appointed businessman William Daley as new chief of staff and added GE CEO Jeff Immelt as a prominent economic advisor.President Kennedy addresses Congress 1962

Obama's also cozying up to the Chamber of Commerce, whose members might be thinking twice about donating so much this time to someone who's bashed them so hard since Inauguration Day.

Obama is housecleaning other lightning rod aides such as Gibbs, Carol Browner and David Axelrod, who'll return to Chicago next month to assemble the billion-dollar campaign.

And the president and fellow Chicagoan Daley, an ex-Clinton Cabinet secretary, are importing enough former presidential aides to make the next two years Clinton 3.0.

Faced with the stark reality that a newly Republican House will stymie any more of his liberal blockbuster bills for two years at least, Obama is smartly appearing to move toward the middle of the road, always the safest route to presidential victory in America.

If it works, he'll then have four years of no next-term accountability to implement whatever other grand plans reside in his activist mind.

Obama's recent uptick in job approval indicates this road shuffle may be working for now. Tonight's reasonable rhetoric from the Real Good Talker should provide further evidence. (Full Obama text on The Ticket later.) Here's how one network's anchors view this evening.

Related Item:

Barack Obama's 2010 State of the Union Address

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photos: Associated Press (Reagan 1988, Eisenhower 1957, Truman 1947, Kennedy 1962); Library of Congress (Wilson 1913).