State of the Union: The Power of Pronouncements

By / 1.26.2011

This week, I taught the first class of a graduate seminar at Virginia Tech titled “Collaborative Governance.”  Our readings included a Foreign Affairs essay where the author confidently pronounced a number of pretty simple and strong directions for policymakers.  One of the students—who is earning a Ph.D.—became extremely frustrated.  “It’s just so simplistic!” she complained.  “There’s no subtlety, no context.”

So it goes with policy pronouncements, and so it often goes with the State of the Union.  People are often frustrated that they don’t hear the specifics about what government should do.

Yet, as we discussed in class, the fact remains that the broad, often simplistic pronouncements we heard last night still do push the ship of state in one direction rather than another.  And the fact also remains that the gulf between hard policy and the politics of policy can be perilous.

Democracy and governance held a place at once enthusiastic and general in the speech.  The commitment to the metaphysical promise of democracy was very clear:  “We must never forget that the things we’ve struggled for, and fought for, live in the hearts of people everywhere.”  About South Sudan, for instance, the president celebrated the outbreak of self-determination and freedom.

But questions were unanswered:  Here’s what President Obama said about Afghanistan:

There will be tough fighting ahead, and the Afghan government will need to deliver better governance. But we are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them.

“Need to deliver better governance” is the sort of generality that drives people like my frustrated student nuts.  The Karzai government is currently riven about whether to ratify the results of last October’s Parliamentary election and actually seat the government, with Karzai’s Attorney General trying to declare the results invalid.  The U.S. government’s position is that the elections should be upheld—but the overarching policy on how best to achieve governance in Afghanistan is still less than completely clear.

The allusions to the stirring outbreaks of democracy in Tunisia and Sudan were inspiring but equally indeterminate.  Of Tunisia, the president said, “[T]he United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”

We support the democratic aspirations of all people—but the speech did not mention the extremely thorny issue of our traditional partner Egypt, an autocratic nation where a Tunisia-inspired democratic revolt was happening as the president spoke. That gap spoke volumes about the difficulty of translating broad aims into hard policy.

But the saving grace came in passages about American democracy itself.  In 2010, here’s what President Obama said about our system:

Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That’s just how it is.

This was striking both for its objectivity and its slightly defensive quality.  There was a slight but crucial reframing of a highly similar statement in this year’s SOTU:

And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.

Perhaps it was the Giffords shooting, or the sight of the Tunisian activists in the street, or the Congressspeople sitting together—but the statement brought tears to my eyes.  This year, President Obama’s observation of the messiness of American democracy became an article of pride.  This is a generality we can all embrace.