With few exceptions (such as Gerald Ford's blunt 1975 assessment that "the state of the union is not good") the president's annual report to Congress is an exercise in reassuring Americans they are exceptional, blessed by God, leading the world, and headed for better things.
Last night's was no different; at best, it amounted to an optimistic statement of intent by a president who has been thwarted constantly by other arms of government since assuming office.
- Inequality has deepened, Obama tells nation
- Test your state of the union knowledge
- Read the president's full speech
- Obama's state of the unions compared in word clouds
So, let's imagine what an outsider like, say, me, might submit if asked for a more succinct, less varnished assessment of the state of the American union. It would probably go something like this:
"My fellow Americans,
"A month after I assumed office, in the midst of a financial crisis that terrified us all, I stood in this place and promised we would not just recover, but that we would emerge stronger.
"Well, five years later that hasn't happened for most of us. To quote a common jape, the economy's doing well, except for most of the people in it.
"Half the counties in this great nation have not yet made it back to pre-recession levels.
"Our public debt, relative to our economy, is higher than the European average, and we know what a mess Europe is. As those countries struggle to repair their damage, we do foolish things like threatening default, and shutting down government.
"And yet, we actually do seem to be recovering faster than the rest of the world from the disaster our very own banking system created.
"A lot of that is because of our incredibly privileged position as printer of the world's reserve currency. It makes us immune to economic realities endured by the rest of the world, at least for the time being.
"We are lucky. And we should realize that.
"As much as some think government is the problem, it has actually been the solution. My predecessor's decision to embrace socialism in 2008 and use tax money to rescue our banks seems to have worked. As did the heavy spending I undertook that so many of you are so angry about in retrospect.
"Our Federal Reserve has also printed trillions of dollars, which helped prevent collapse, although frankly, folks, no one has any idea how that's going to turn out now that the Fed's winding it up.
"I guess we'll see.
"I do want to reassure you tonight that I still regard economic inequality as the defining issue of our time. But I must confess it has grown during my time in office.
"I know I promised to do something about it. But for some reason, millions of you who have seen your real incomes shrink relentlessly continue to vote against your own economic interest. You also want more tax cuts for the well off, perhaps because you still think you have a shot at getting rich.
"Well, I'm going to be honest tonight: Most of you don't.
"I'm not sure what else I can say, or do, about that, given our system. But that particular American dream appears to be dead.
"Turning to my most solemn duty, the protection of our country, you all by now know that our intelligence services have become the most powerful in the history of the world. They spy on just about everyone, everywhere, including you, my fellow Americans.
"Unfortunately, you heard that first this past year not from me, your president, but from a 29-year-old NSA contractor.
"So, I decided to conduct a review of how we gather intelligence, and I've decided some changes are needed, but really, I'm afraid there's not really much I can do about that, either, my fellow Americans.
"I've discovered the truth of what Senator Frank Church warned us about nearly 40 years ago: We've created something we cannot really control. And we need it to deal with the bad guys. We just have to live with that.
"I can report, though, that our long foreign wars are over, even if Iraq appears to be sliding back into violent anarchy, and Afghanistan probably isn't far behind.
"To our many shattered warriors, and to those of you who lost sons and daughters in those countries, I wish I could say it was worthwhile. Perhaps it was. I just don't know. None of us does.
"Let me now say something about our health-care reform, what I've been proud to call Obamacare: It's a mess. A stew of regulations and unintended consequences.
"In retrospect, we should have done what just about every other Western nation has done and put in place a true, publicly insured system, with a single payer, available to everyone, alongside a private system for those who can afford it.
"That's what I really wanted to do. But what can I say? I came to office believing in compromise, and to say it hasn't worked was an understatement.
"I can only hope you, my fellow Americans, will embrace what we created, as you have embraced all your other entitlements. It's out of my hands now.
"Finally, let me turn to the people in this room: The 113th Congress of these United States.
"To you, I say: Really? Seriously? Are you kidding me? You are on your way to becoming the least productive Congress in our history. You have been, quite literally, useless.
"You managed to pass 58 bills last year, and a lot of those were to name post offices.
"You members of the House of Representatives are the entrenched product of gerrymandering; you in fact represent the calcification of twisted democracy.
"And how many times have you held your useless votes to repeal Obamacare? Fifty, right?
"Great job. Congratulations.
"And you, my former colleagues in the United States Senate, are cowards.
"This time last year, we were still grieving over the murders of 20 schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. I asked for some basic measures to protect Americans … and you did nothing.
"You couldn't even find the courage to pass background checks on new gun buyers, which most Americans support.
"Five of the final "No" votes were from members of my own party. Shame on you, and shame on us.
"So I'm announcing tonight that I will use whatever powers I possess to act unilaterally. But really, it won't amount to much.
"Remember, my first promise, back in those hopeful days of 2009, was to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre. You wouldn't even let me do that.
"There are those of you who will say this speech is too dark, that a president should not speak so ill of our democracy. And indeed, there are wonderful things about this country I have not said tonight.
"Well, I suggest we are already very good at self-congratulation, my fellow Americans, and more of that is not what you need from me. I suggest we need to co-operate, pay our taxes, educate our children, care for our weakest members, and stop whining at one another.
"This chamber would be an excellent place to begin.
"God bless America."