obamasmileLast week, three US Senators (one Republican and two Democrats) called on President Obama to address startups in tonight’s State of the Union address. In a letter, the senators argued that entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Sergey Brin have been responsible for nearly all job creation since 1980, creating on average 3 million jobs a year.

No president has even uttered the word “startup” in a State of the Union speech, so the President could achieve a small but significant milestone tonight. But even if he does, will it matter? What do Presidents really mean when they invoke technology in their speeches? And does it ever materialize into actual policy changes?

Looking back at the last five presidents’ State of the Union addresses, a few trends begin to surface. For example, President Reagan loved to invoke technology, but he usually did so as a way to illustrate American exceptionalism, not to push policy agendas. In his 1982 address, he intoned, “We Americans are still the technological leaders in most fields.” He would also often recount stories of Americans who came from nothing to start high-tech companies.

Meanwhile, Presidents Clinton, Obama, and the two Bushes were more apt to emphasize  technological ideals in the service of pushing policies. Whether it’s how technology can improve the military (Bush 41), gun control (Clinton), border control (Bush 43), or health-care (Obama). While dropping the t-word is almost always used for positive effect, Clinton, toward the end of his administration, would often make note of technology’s limitations and dangers, whether by raising awareness of those who have been “left behind by the global marketplace or by the march of technology,” or by warning against “weapons of terror” that can fit in the palm of your hand.

But rarely do these invocations of high-tech solutions explore specific ways technology or tech businesses will help achieve well-defined goals. And even when they do, do presidents follow through on their promises?

Not often, and especially not when it comes to green-tech. Despite any real or perceived gulf between the two major parties when it comes to environmentalism, the rhetoric of all five presidents on this issue is at times distinguishable from one another (and so is their lack of follow through). Reagan pledged to devote more money to acid rain research in the 1984 SOTU yet repeatedly dismissed acid rain proposals from the EPA throughout his presidency. Obama and both Bushes have touted “clean coal” technology. And while the concept of clean coal isn’t as far-fetched as many environmentalists argue, it’s still incredibly expensive and difficult to scale despite $10 billion in federal investment under Bush 43 and Obama.

There are also inevitable political obstacles that can stymie a President’s best intentions. For example, in Clinton’s final SOTU in 2000 he touted technology “that could lead to guns that can only be fired by the adults who own them.” The administration even went so far as to sign an agreement with Smith & Wesson to develop these so-called “smart guns” and to undertake other gun safety initiatives. So what happened? Gun advocates boycotted Smith & Wesson, Clinton’s term ran out, and the idea never came to fruition.

This could be the fate that awaits the startup visa, an initiative Hamish McKenzie wrote about today that Obama could name in his speech tonight. But even with the White House’s backing, the visa faces an uphill political battle mired in the volatile politics of the immigration debate.

So by all means, tech-friendly senators, Silicon Valley insiders, and startup observers, get excited about what President Obama pledges to do to help your communities tonight. A shout-out to what you care about in the State of the Union address is never a bad thing. Just don’t forget the politics, the public opinion, and the insincere rhetoric that can doom well-intentioned pledges from the start.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons