What Didn’t He Say? …And How Didn’t He Say it?

Tonight, President Obama will deliver the State of the Union speech, or SOTU.  The SOTU is an odd creature.  It is an annual opportunity for the President to directly address Congress on whatever he wishes—a time to “show his hand” for the upcoming year.  From a “math of politics” perspective, there are at least three interesting aspects of the SOTU: (1) time is limited, (2) it’s not just what you talk about, but how you talk about it, and (3) everybody knows that everybody else is listening, too.[1]

1. What’s (not) in Your Hand? First, the fact that time is limited and the SOTU occurs only once a year provides the President a chance to credibly signal priorities.  Given time constraints, including a topic in the SOTU is a signal of its importance in the obvious fashion.  But what is more interesting is the case of topics that one might expect the President to include but are instead left unmentioned.  Especially if the topic is relatively polarized, omitting it from the speech might be an implicit concession to moderate Democrats and/or Republicans in Congress.  If I had to pick a topic that is in the news and yet might not be mentioned, it would be immigration.  I’m not going to bet the house on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t much attention paid to it precisely because some in the GOP are indicating that they might be organizing for a push in favor of immigration reform.[2]  A topic I predict will be included: the debt-ceiling. (See my previous post about Mitch McConnell’s stance on this to understand why.)

Given the realities of bargaining before an audience (as I have discussed beforemultiple… times) the fact that a topic was not brought up in the SOTU can signal to Congress a flexibility on the part of the President about what he might be willing to accept with respect to that topic—because he has not (re)staked out a public position on the issue.  Indeed, this is independent of how the President spins a position on the topic.  That is, ironically, if the President explicitly signals flexibility on a topic in the SOTU, then this might make it harder for him to actually compromise, because the details of the compromise might be interpreted and/or spun as the President/Dems “folding” and/or the GOP might be accused of “not getting as much as they could.”  We’re arguably seeing a version of this play out right now with the debt ceiling.

2. What Kind of Glove?  Now, taking the topics brought up in the SOTU as given, how does the President propose to address each topic—does he “seek” Congressional leadership on the matter, or does he announce a unilateral initiative?  This is particularly interesting in tonight’s speech, given the recent suggestions by the White House that President Obama is “ready to take unilateral action to close the gap between rich and poor Americans” and the pre-speech announcement of an Executive Order that will raise the minimum wage for Federal contract workers.

The press release linked above is particularly interesting in this regard, as the following quote illustrates (emphasis added):

The President is using his executive authority to lead by example, and will continue to work with Congress to finish the job for all Americans by passing the Harkin-Miller bill.

Given this “pre-game messaging strategy,” Obama might be seen as more conciliatory and “bipartisan” if he requests Congressional leadership and/or initiative on other topics.  Furthermore, such an approach on a different topic would set up a justification for subsequent unilateral action by Obama if (when?) Congress fails to act on the matter in question.  The message sent by the White House’s comments in general and the minimum wage Executive Order in particular can be interpreted as President Obama saying, “hey, I’ll give it a go on my own if I have to.”  Of course, there’s necessarily a lot of bluster in such statements by any President, but it’s not completely cheap talk.

3. Why Don’t We Shake Hands On It? Third, the SOTU is the basis of what game theorists call “common knowledge.”[3]  In other words, while the President can say whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and get media coverage of it, the SOTU is a time when all of Congress is sitting in front of him when he says it.  That is, he knows that Congress has heard him take the precious time available in the SOTU to say what he said (and not say what he didn’t say) and, even more importantly, he knows that Congress knows that he knows they were there.  Or, put another way, the voters know that Congress heard the SOTU.

This mutual knowledge aspect of the SOTU is important in the following way: if Congress does not act upon a request in the SOTU, it is difficult to believe that the inaction was due to Congress not knowing that the President thought the topic was important.  As alluded to above, this is particularly relevant if the President eventually takes unilateral action on the topic. If he signaled a topic was important through the allocation of SOTU time and Congress doesn’t bring a bill on it to his desk, then it is clearly easier for the President to justify unilateral action to the voters.

In summary, while any speech is necessarily “just” talk, the State of the Union is more than just a speech: it is a constrained amount of time when everybody knows that everybody is watching. This kind of talk ain’t cheap.

With that, I’m going to go get my popcorn and leave you with this.


[1] Of course, it’s not true that everybody is listening.  I mean, this is about SOTU, not SYTYCD.

[2] I’ll leave aside the interesting question of whether such attempts, given the timing, might be strategic attempts to preempt Obama staking out a big position on immigration.  That would require another post entirely.

[3] Technically speaking, common knowledge is a much deeper phenomenon than what I am talking about here.  However, this is merely a blog post. I am using this footnote to try to make it common knowledge that I am aware I am being loose with the notion of common knowledge.  Know what I mean?