State of the State of the States
If the State of the Union speech is the artisanal homebrew of the political year, State of the State addresses are buying tall boys in bulk.
History suggests that President Obama will deliver 7,000-odd words in his address. So far in 2013, governors in 44 states have laid out nearly 200,000 words of State of the State stock-taking. Carving this rhetorical thicket into what’s relevant to national politics and what’s not provides a survey of support for current policies, a sense of how new proposals may be received and a reminder that states churn with concerns far beyond the issues that will be wedged into primetime TV.
Most used words in each 2013 State of the State address
Education and the economy dominate the 10 most-used words in each State of the State address . Governors riffed on one broad economic story this year — and Obama is sure to follow suit — of recovery from the financial crisis with a long road ahead. To hear governors tell it, the turnaround relied on state commitments to hard budgetary choices and careful rebuilding to overcome inaction in Washington, D.C. Obama must convince the nation, particularly the middle class, that he can wrangle Washington to prime the nation for growth amid sequestration and gridlock — perhaps with an emphasis on infrastructure and clean energy projects, which regularly featured in this year’s state addresses.
On education, it’s no surprise that governors touted programs aimed at teachers and students. Expect Obama to follow the governors’ lead on this perennial political winner, employing a strong anecdote or two and emphasizing the need to improve America’s academic standing.
Also expect a segue into gun control, particularly with gun violence victims from Newtown attending the address. Obama almost certainly will continue the push for stronger gun control measures that he unveiled in January. New York Democrat Andrew Cuomo called for new gun laws in his address that were soon enacted, and Massachusetts Democrat Deval Patrick and Maryland Democrat Martin O’Malley did the same. All three men have been mentioned as presidential candidates, and their proposals may later be seen as a step toward the national stage.
Connecticut Democrat Dan Malloy said, “[W]hen it comes to preventing future acts of violence in our schools, let me say this: more guns are not the answer.” In Arizona, where former representative Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011, Republican Janice Brewer said the state has reduced crime by punishing criminals, not by infringing on gun owners’ rights. The shopping mall and movie theater shootings in Oregon and Colorado led their addresses, and a plea for an end to gun violence went out in Rhode Island, Delaware, Washington and Illinois. Roughly half of the addresses included no reference to gun violence. Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker did not mention the Oak Creek temple shooting during his address, though he did during an appearance the next day while supporting improved mental health programs rather than gun control laws.
There was a lack of state-level focus on immigration and climate change, unless the topic was the business climate. Environmental action featured in liberal states such as Maryland and New York and resource-rich Washington, California and Minnesota. North Dakota and Alaska showed concern for proper regulation given a boom in drilling for energy.
Immigration was even less popular. Illinois Democrat Pat Quinn highlighted a scholarship program for high school students from immigrant families, while New Mexico Republican Susana Martinez stressed a need to limit driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, and Arizona’s Brewer said, “I’ve heard the earnest calls for immigration reform. I agree our [n]ation’s system is broken and has been for decades. To the reformers, I say: Demonstrate your stated commitment to a secure border by making that your FIRST priority.” Obama will need to define the debate for Americans as he holds out hope for legislative compromise.
It will be worth tracking how much Obama mentions the Affordable Care Act, his signature healthcare reform law, as it nears a full rollout in 2014. Governors did not shy away from healthcare debates, particularly the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid coverage in states that contribute a set amount in return for federal funds. Many conservative states have rejected the expansion on spending grounds, though the governors of Arizona and Arkansas took pains to justify taking federal money given healthcare funding constraints.
Democrat John Hickenlooper asked Coloradans to “punch holes in darkness” to make a difference for their state. Indiana Republican Mike Pence used the word “Hoosiers” 25 times. Utah Republican Gary Herbert gave a shout out to the “Chief Sauce Maker” of the Snap Daddy’s barbecue company. Cuomo talked up the “Adirondack Challenge” whitewater rafting competition, saying he is excited to join while wearing “my Brawny Paper Towel Man shirt.” South Dakota Republican Dennis Daugaard detailed the reconstruction of the State Capitol building’s floor.
President Obama will not say any of this. But as he finishes his speech with his new writing whiz kid, he should keep the State of the States in mind. A distillation of their words could provide the kick he must serve from behind the podium.