The chatter over the State of the Union’s bipartisan seating chart wasn’t enough to fill the seats that really count – those in front of the TV.
Nielsen reports nearly 43 million Americans watched President Obama’s speech, which translates into 11 percent fewer viewers tuning in than last year.
Compared to Obama’s first address, the falloff is 18 percent. That’s significant, but just over half the 37 percent plunge from President Bill Clinton’s first speech to his third.
President George W. Bush was the opposite. His third address spiked 56 percent compared to his first.
That’s because Bush’s 2003 “axis of evil” address was on the eve of the nation going to war with Iraq.
Obama, too, focused on a growing foreign threat. But it wasn’t Iraq – he only spoke 74 words, a little over 1 percent of his speech, on the war that was a central premise of his candidacy.
Instead, his economic theme of “winning the future” tapped into the existential anxiety so many feel over China, India and other rapidly developing economies that seem so much more dynamic than ours.
More traditional military and security threats got short shrift by comparison, too: Afghanistan, the war we’ve been mired in for nine years, got only 134 words.
Pakistan got 62 words. And al-Qaeda, the real reason we’re involved in both countries, accounted for only 76 words.
Other hot spots also seemed to bring cooler, and shorter, emphasis: Only 48 words on worries over Iran and North Korea’s nuclear ambition.
Reducing nuclear nightmares with Russia, via the New START treaty, was the subject of 57 words. And “shaping a world that favors peace and prosperity” was worth 110 words.
The de-emphasis on terrorism-driven conflict will be noted in parts of Africa and the Middle East.
As will the well-chosen 133 words Obama said about South Sudan and Tunisia – especially the phrase “supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”
After seemingly siding with repressive regimes in the post-9/11 era, it’s crucial that those in Tunis, Cairo, or whichever capitol is the next to blow, know that America is reasserting its rightful role as a beacon of free elections.
It may not create the conditions for a dramatic pre-war State of the Union speech. But Obama is right to have his rhetoric reflect the theme that threats are amorphous.
"Just as jobs and businesses can now race across borders,” he said, “so can new threats and new challenges. No single wall separates East and West; no one rival superpower is aligned against us.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer. His column, Rash Report, appears on Saturdays.
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