State of the Union: How They Play It in Other States and Unions

President Obama delivers the State of the Union address on Jan. 24, 2012, in Washington Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Tonight millions of viewers will watch President Obama give the State of the Union address (38 million tuned in last year). Barring any Biden-esque antics or a mid-speech blackout, it will probably be pretty anticlimactic.

Still, the State of the Union is a big deal in the U.S., says Stephen Farnsworth, author of Spinner in Chief: How Presidents Sell Their Policies and Themselves and professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington. “This is when presidents try to leverage public approval to get what they want from Congress.”

In other countries, Farnsworth says, leaders may not bother with the sweet talk. Instead, they tend to read scripts explaining where the government is going, “whereas the American State of the Union is more like a pep rally.” For example:

In the U.K. the Queen gives the address, but it’s prepared by politicians. And in China, all top leaders sign off on the premier’s annual speech, which takes a couple of hours to deliver.

In such Central Asian countries as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan where freedom of speech is heavily restricted, an address is “more a glorification of the leaders and how well things are going,” says Carolyn Kissane, from the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. In a speech in December, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev celebrated that the country “already ranked 51st in terms of economic competitiveness.”

Even when rote statements are prepared, events sometimes can get confrontational. Last week in Georgia, after lawmakers canceled President Mikheil Saakashvili’s annual speech in Parliament, he decided to give it at the national library instead. The decision drew protests, and fighting broke out in the streets.

“That’s a lot tenser than what we have, when the president’s supporters applaud every sentence and his opponents sit in angry silence,” says Steve Sestanovich, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Still, outspoken rock star and gun rights advocate Ted Nugent will be at tonight’s address, so you never know.

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