• Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
  • President Obama at the White House today

With all three branches of government in the same room, the State of the Union address is “a pretty great moment in our democracy,” Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House domestic policy council, said last year.

It could be a pretty great moment. Which makes it all the more lamentable that presidents squander it.

Presidential speeches for years have been marked by “the increasing substitution of arguments with applause-rendering platitudes, partisan punch lines, and emotional and human interest appeals,” Elvin Lim writes in his revealing book The Anti-Intellectual Presidency.

According to Aristotle, effective rhetoric combines logos, ethos, and pathos, Lim notes. Logos is “the weighing and judging of reasons for a particular course of action,” ethos, “the credibility of the speaker,” pathos, emotional appeal.