The moment finally arrived when it became impossible to play along any more. With each succeeding year, I pronounced my objections to the grand event but balked at cutting the strings, afraid to be left out of the national pageantry. This week, though, after years of empty threats, I finally declared my independence.
I refused to watch the State of the Union speech.
Oh, I read the speech – as it turns out, about 30 minutes before President Barack Obama delivered it, thanks to a White House decision to release the text ahead of time. Many people did likewise. Yet it didn’t stem the enthusiasm – or at least the attraction – for an event that is ultimately the emptiest circus in our political pantheon. Seasoned reporters and analysts with decades of experience carried on as though this moment had any real import, watching Congress do jumping jacks out of their seats for a politician reciting a rehashed agenda that voters rejected eleven weeks earlier.
Even by American standards, where we do pomp and circumstance on the grandest scale, the disparity between the State of the Union’s pageantry and its import boggles the mind. The President – and this applies to any President, especially in the television era – enters the chamber of the people’s branch of government like a triumphal Caesar rather than a chief executive delivering a report on operations to a legislature. Members are expected to cheer the President every few lines with standing ovations, regardless of what is being said.
Worst of all, everyone pretends that the speech has more import than an address given at a factory or a schoolyard, where at least one might expect focus on a particular policy area. The White House and their allies on Capitol Hill pretend that each SOTU address is the Most Important Speech Ever, while barely anyone else can recall more than a couple of points from the previous Most Important Speech Ever.
The opposition party, jealous of the television time afforded this grotesque display, chooses a sacrificial lamb to deliver a televised response that usually comes across as comic relief. Afterward, politicians issue an avalanche of generic press releases, while pundits weigh the import of the President’s wish list and wonder whether this will produce a magic bullet for their approval ratings.
Two weeks later, everyone forgets all about it. Eleven and a half months after that, we start the whole cycle over again.
Even political conventions, long bereft of any suspense, have more functional value than a State of the Union speech. They produce party platforms that few read and even fewer adopt in toto while campaigning, and the presidential nominations are almost always wrapped up weeks before the conventions begin. However, they do provide for networking among activists, and more importantly, a platform to allow the next generation of talent to emerge on a national stage in the weeks before an election. SOTU addresses take place weeks after an election, when voters want Washington to stop playing around and get to work.
This year’s exercise was a particularly empty one. Last October, President Obama explicitly linked his agenda to the midterm elections, only to watch his party suffer a disaster in both the House and Senate in November. Last night’s State of the Union speech took place in front of a Congress that has 80 more Republicans than when Obama first took office six years ago to the day. To the extent that there was any interest at all in this event outside of the Beltway and the commentariat, the key was whether Obama would acknowledge that rejection and build bridges with Republicans to find areas of compromise.
Instead, Obama acted like voters had no effect on him at all. As David Corn noted at Mother Jones, “Obama acted as if the last election had not occurred—or that, at least, it was not a defining moment.” Corn considered this being “bold” on Obama’s part, but for voters who had given Obama and his party a sound thrashing at the ballot box less than three months earlier, it sounds more like denial. So too did the laundry list of hyperbolic claims of success by Obama over the past year, given that 2014 was easily his worst in terms of job approval in his presidency.
Almost nothing Obama discussed has a prayer of getting a floor vote, let alone passage, in the 114th Congress. The wish list was so improbable that CBS’ Bob Schieffer reacted in disbelief when Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer unveiled it on Face the Nation two days earlier. Obama hadn’t bothered to put that agenda before the Democratic-controlled 111th Congress Schieffer pointed out, especially the $320 billion in new tax hikes. “Is this for real?” Schieffer demanded.
Of course it’s not for real. It’s just for theater, a silly show for silly people who are interested only in posturing rather than actual governance. It was a circus that allowed Obama to feign leadership while a captive Congress feted him with phony ovations for an administration mired in both denial and failure. Ironically, the White House itself issued the event’s most honest representation when it tweeted a picture of an empty tan suit with the hashtag #YesWeTan, in a puerile attempt to troll Twitter users (Obama showed up in the usual navy blue pinstripes).
Nothing exemplifies the State of the Union’s uselessness better than that image. We don’t have an emperor with no clothes; we have a suit with no leader, strutting across a stage for an evening for no one’s benefit but his own while everyone else pretends to see meaning in it. Shame on us for playing along with this farce of an event for so long. Let us press upon both parties to put an end to this embarrassment to representative democracy, and return the constitutional requirement back into the operational report the founders intended – preferably in writing.
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