The State of the Union Address is usually among the most important and least memorable of presidential speeches. The speech itself, in an august setting, is an opportunity for a president to break through in a new way. TV and radio carry it live, and it's hard for the average citizen to avoid seeing at least a piece of it. It's a real chance for a White House to tell the American people "This is where we stand, this is why we are here, this is what we believe in."
But most State of the Unions don't measure up. They get beaten down by the staffing process and flattened by the laundry-list aspects: "We'll do this and this and this." There's always too much going on in the speech, and in the end it's usually, in Churchill's phrase, a pudding without a theme.
And they run long. One reason is that if you want to make a speech unavoidable. The longer it is, the greater the chance people will see some part of it. Another is that in the 1960s network anchors started noting how many times the president was "interrupted by applause." This made everyone in every White House since want to get their guy more applause than the previous guy. Congressmen pop up and down like manic gophers in an attempt to show support. A president is left standing up there for an hour and 20 minutes with the blood starting to pool in his calves and a look on his face that says, "I really want to look like I'm interested in what I'm saying, but we're 22 minutes in and I'm just thinking about dinner." They eat lightly before the speech. They are hungry after.
This year, members of Congress may sit together, not divided by party. After the trauma of Tucson that would be all to the good, a physical expression of a national longing that will never go away, that we be one country. Watch for the White House to craft semi-ringing and wholly anodyne statements that will allow members of both parties to leap to their feet together, such as "Now and always, America stands for freedom." This will leave people at home thinking "Boy, they like this guy more than I thought."
A prediction: President Obama's speech will be unusually good. Why? Because he's showing signs of understanding that if you say something simply, clearly and sparingly, it can stick. As a rule, when Mr. Obama speaks, he literally says too many words, and they're not especially interesting words. They're dull and bureaucratic or windy and vague, too round and soft to pierce and enter your brain.
Peggy Noonan is an author and Wall Street Journal columnist. To continue reading her column about Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal, click here.