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Addressing the State of the Union: The Evolution and Impact of the President's Big Speech.

Addressing the State of the Union: The Evolution and Impact of the President's Big Speech. By Donna R. Hoffman and Alison D. Howard. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006. 211 pp.

Much has been written about the "rhetorical presidency," and a fair amount as well about one of its more visible public manifestations: the State of the Union address. In Addressing the State of the Union, Hoffman and Howard manage to take a different tack in studying it. Essentially, they examine the "big speech" mainly in the context of the president's "chief legislator" role.

The book is organized sequentially. After discussing why studying State of the Union messages is important, the authors present a rather standard historical discussion of its use by presidents, though they conclude that the speech's role has changed. What started as a duty became a power, a power to initiate and recommend. Hoffman and Howard then spend the rest of the book on speeches from 1965 to 2002, the contemporary era of live, prime-time addresses.

The two core chapters deal with content analyzing and classifying the addresses in the context of the president's role as chief legislator. First, they explore how presidents portray themselves and use the speech as quasi-legislators to take positions, offer solutions for constituents, and claim credit for successes. Second, attention turns to analyzing how successful presidents are at getting Congress to accede to their wishes. Hoffman and Howard find that presidents do behave like the self-interested House members in David Mayhew's classic work and that presidents achieve around 40 percent of their requests in the State of the Union, though there is variation within and across presidencies due to various factors. In addition, the authors examine four presidential initiatives from the speeches, each of which had a different outcome. Hoffman and Howard conclude by noting, on the one hand, that the power of the State of the Union, like that of the chief legislator more generally, is a limited one given constitutional constraints, but, on the other, that it is somewhat dangerous in fueling the office's "expectations gap" that scholars such as Cronin and Waterman have identified.

Addressing the State of the Union has several virtues. If nothing else, Hoffman and Howard manage to mine the speeches for more data. The fact that they find that two of every five presidential requests become law in some form seems to challenge arguments of scholars such as George Edwards who think using the bully pulpit has little effect. A skeptic might say the 40 percent mark is unimpressive, but it is arguably substantial coming from a single speech.

The application of Mayhew's credit-claiming and position-taking concepts to the chief legislator and the address itself is original and insightful. Hoffman and Howard also include qualitative examples such as individual or group speech case studies and sprinkle the work with quotations from the presidents themselves, adding life to the text and giving the reader a more nuanced understanding of how presidents pursue their goals and utilize these addresses.

Still, in places, the book is somewhat long on description and data but short on analysis and explanation of what such information tells us. Some findings seem obvious: for example, presidents are better at getting proposals in their addresses passed when their party controls all or part of Congress; second-term presidencies in general see fewer recommendations enacted the longer the president serves. Meanwhile, too little is said about results that seem counterintuitive: for instance, "crisis" speeches do not appear to gain the president greater legislative success and vary by circumstance; presidents do not necessarily take more credit in reelection year speeches.

Hoffman and Howard's observation that the State of the Union speech has become more of a power and less of a duty makes sense in terms of how presidential responsibilities have changed since FDR. Even so, the "power to recommend" does not seem like much of a power, being less even than Richard Neustadt's "power to persuade."

Understandably, perhaps, the authors chose prime-time TV addresses for comparison and study. Yet, they fail to contrast them directly with the speeches that came before. It might have been useful to see whether pre-prime-time or even pre-television-era speeches, when presidents spoke more directly to Congress, were associated with different levels of legislative success or degrees of credit claiming, though this clearly would have required more effort.

Similarly, Hoffman and Howard recognize the public audience for these speeches in a "going public" age, yet they almost completely ignore that public's response. Presidents may promise more than they can deliver in State of the Union addresses, and the authors' argument that this contributes to the expectations gap is plausible, but this point might have been strengthened by references to polls about what people thought about the speech, the president, and the office. One wonders as well whether the televised "speech from the throne" imagery and presidential credit claiming would be remembered more by the public than the subsequent lack of success of some proposals.

Nevertheless, by showing how this annual ritual now affects how presidents and the Congress do their jobs, Addressing the State of the Union is worth a look by those interested in presidential communication and the office's role in the legislative process.

--Todd Schaefer

Central Washington University
COPYRIGHT 2007 Center for the Study of the Presidency
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Author:Schaefer, Todd
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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