The American Presidency Project does a fantastic job keeping a record of interesting stats relating to State of the Union addresses. For instance, they’ve tracked the lengths of each State of the Union speech since 1966, and averaged them out. President Obama ranks as the second-lengthiest speaker at 1 hour, 3 minutes, yet I personally find his addresses to be quite underwhelming. For a man with a reputation as a great speaker, his State of the Union addresses are unusually dry and oftentimes lacking in any sort of real vision. To be fair, State of the Union (SOTU) speeches generally are less memorable, but usually the audience should walk away with a sense of purpose or knowledge about where the country is headed. And in that regard, he usually fails to hit the mark.
President George W. Bush’s 1st State of the Union (SOTU) was memorable because it was the first after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At just under 48 minutes, it was actually his shortest speech but perhaps his most compelling. At a time of heightened crisis, Bush’s speechwriters chose not to overwhelm the audience with words. Shorter speeches, after all, tend to pack more of a punch and stay fresh longer in the minds of the public. President Ronald Reagan, a celebrated and warm speaker, kept his even shorter, averaging about 40 minutes per speech.
President Lyndon Johnson averaged about 54 minutes of talking time. Only his 1967 speech was notably longer, at just over 71 minutes.
More revealing, perhaps, is that recent presidents, from Clinton through Obama, have lengthened their word counts. Clinton routinely wrote 6-7,000 words, Bush 5-6,000 and Obama 7,000. Yet the quality does not increase. Perhaps Obama and future presidents would be wise to consider reducing the length of their speeches in both word count and delivery time in order to hold the interest of a public with a declining attention span and enable the people to really rally around an idea or a policy push in the future. The older presidents often wrote length 15,000 word+ statements to be read to Congress, but that was a different age and audience. As the State of the Union becomes more about show, about setting the stage for the president’s political party to win elections, it becomes less necessary to really go into great detail. Perhaps President Obama could regain the attention of the American public if he pursued the K.I.S.S. principle (Keep It Short, Stupid!).