What I’m anticipating in tonight’s State of the Union  (Prof. Alise Coen)

Hello readers. I’m Alise Coen and I’m an Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Public and Environmental Affairs Unit at UW-Green Bay. You can learn a bit more about me on my personal website. My research focuses on global politics, human rights, refugee and migration policy, and U.S. foreign policy. I’m also really interested in the role of language and discourse in politics. With that said, I try not to make a habit of too narrowly predicting political speeches. I try to keep an open mind about what might emerge in the course of a president’s major address to the country (and to audiences worldwide), while also recognizing such moments have been highly curated by the speechwriters and advisors behinds the scenes. The State of the Union address offers us an opportunity to think about how the fluctuating circumstances of the current political context interact with more deeply rooted themes in U.S. presidential discourse over time. It’s an important window into how political leaders construct and reproduce a sense of what it means to be “American” and what it means to be a superpower in contemporary global politics.  

Some of the themes I’m anticipating in tonight’s address are very much of the current moment. The intensification of violence in Ukraine and rising levels of forced displacement and civilian harm resulting from the war will likely manifest in more discussion of international relations. In particular, I’ll be listening for language condemning Russia’s behavior and highlighting U.S. “leadership” in orchestrating global sanctions against Putin. I also expect Biden to emphasize the strengths of working through multilateralism—that is, working with U.S. “allies”—to respond to the conflict. This kind of language appeals especially to political liberals and Democrats in U.S. politics, who tend to favor more collective security and diplomatic approaches to foreign policy (as opposed to more unilateral approaches and the use of military force). The war in Ukraine might also be framed by Biden as a moment which reflects the values of democracy and the importance of protecting those values both at home and abroad. I’ll be looking to see whether his speech draws a connection on that front between protecting “freedom” or “human rights” overseas with similar issues manifesting in his administration’s domestic agenda in U.S. politics. 

Alongside references to items on Biden’s domestic “Build Back Better” agenda, other themes I’m anticipating are more enduring hallmarks of presidential addresses over time. I expect tonight’s speech to be animated by the language of American Exceptionalism. This might manifest, for example, in comments honoring or acknowledging the wisdom of “our Founders,” references to what makes the United States “great,” and praise for “our values.” There is also a deeply rooted genealogy of these kinds of speeches ending with an appeal to Americans’ religiosity though something like “God Bless the United of America.” In these ways, it is interesting to think about which aspects of political discourse transcend partisan polarization and differences in ideology. Regardless of whether the presidents delivering these addresses are Democrats or Republicans, they tend to shore up America’s national self-image as a unique and divinely ordained superpower destined to do great things on the local and global stage. 

These are just a few of the things I’ll be watching for this evening. I’m certain my fantastic colleagues in UW-Green Bay’s political science faculty will be adding a lot more insight as the evening progresses. I welcome you to join us as we take in the State of the Union address and reflect on its many meanings. 

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