The ‘state of the union’ is … mundane

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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Americans would love to see — just once — a president step before a January microphone and notify Congress and all the happy peasants watching on TV: “The state of the union is abysmal, and I am to blame.” Alas, the chances of President Obama muttering that confession on Tuesday night are about as remote as Republicans selecting their oldest, ugliest member of Congress to deliver the GOP’s response.

The State of the Union address is one of the most shallow and mundane tasks any president undertakes, in my view. Obama performs better when the stage is set by recent circumstances, not by tradition. In Tucson, for example, he seized control of a tragedy and coaxed a wounded country back toward a higher belief in itself (if only temporarily). Tuesday night, we probably should set the bar a little lower.

Through the years I have witnessed umpteen “State of the …” speeches. Each time, the government seems to be in better shape than my attitude. Perhaps it’s because the speeches are so predictable. Maybe it’s because my standards are different. I happen to believe the greatest speech ever was the rain-drenched eulogy Clark Griswold delivered at Aunt Edna’s makeshift funeral in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” Whatever, I’m not expecting to be impressed Tuesday evening.

My recommendation for listening to a “State of the … ” speech is to take special note of anything meaningful that is said. This does not include playing-the-crowd platitudes, the likes of which Gov. Chris Gregoire unleashed in her Jan. 11 “State of the State” address: “First of all, here’s to being the home of the 2010 WNBA champions, the Seattle Storm! And how about those University of Washington Huskies! … And here’s to the Eastern Washington University Eagles! … And how about those Seahawks on Saturday! … Never doubt our players!”

Trust me, Chris, I’ve followed the Seahawks for eight years. Every time they strap on helmets, I doubt them.

By anything meaningful in these speeches, I mean specific recommendations. Gregoire’s speech was 3,272 words. By my unofficial count she proffered eight ideas: Repeal a 1995 law giving automatic benefit increases to state retirees. Improve health care by partnering with the Center of Innovation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Reduce the number of boards and commissions. Cut unemployment insurance and worker’s compensation rates to help businesses. Consolidate eight state education agencies into one. Establish a $1 billion Washington Pledge Scholarship Program. Create a regional ferry district. And contract more government services to the private sector.

Don’t get me wrong, Gregoire is a brilliant orator. But tiresome bromides such as “This is not the first difficult time in our history, nor will it be the last” and “We are the proud people of the great State of Washington” likely won’t be etched onto any monument.

Rivers’ recommendations

The Republicans’ response to Gregoire’s speech was issued by rookie state Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, who also performed admirably, though predictably. Rivers’ speech was 1,548 words and (again, by my unofficial count), she made four specific recommendations: Reform worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance rates (sound familiar?). Reduce the state’s rules and regulations. Streamline permitting processes. And improve transportation infrastructure (although she didn’t say how).

But, admittedly, I was a tough judge. “Prioritize” and “We can do better, and we must do better” didn’t make the final cut on my list of recommendations.

The decades-long record of routine, cliché-packed “State of the …” addresses likely won’t be broken Tuesday night, although if anyone can shatter routine, Obama surely can. The only big news I’m anticipating is how the Cooties Factor plays out. Several members of Congress who belong to opposing parties have promised to sit together, despite whatever partisan germs might spread from seat to seat. This bold, conciliatory move will alter the course of American history about as powerfully as … let’s see … remember Hands Across America in 1986?

John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.