The State Of The Union Is Pointless
Tonight, the American political system stops to engage in the biggest waste of time ever invented.
Later this evening, the President of the United States, the majority of both Houses Of Congress, several Supreme Court Justices and members of the military leadership, along with the diplomatic corps and other invited guests will gather in the House Chamber for the annual spectacle of the State of the Union Address. Notwithstanding the Constitutional requirement that the President keep Congress apprised of the state of the union “from time to time,” the address itself, and most especially the media extravaganza that it has now become, is of relatively recent vintage. Until Woodrow Wilson took office, every President from Thomas Jefferson forward merely sent a written memorandum to Congress, and it seemed to work out just fine. From Wilson forward, though, the nation has been subjected to a national address in which the President laid out a series of policy goals that, depending on whether or not the President’s party controlled Congress, consisted of either pie-in-the-sky dreams or a self-serving list of policy goals. With the rise of television, and especially the 365/24/7 news cycle, the address has become a rather absurd national spectacle complete with all three cable networks running countdown clocks starting at six in the morning on the day of the speech as if the nation were waiting with bated breath for the utterances from the President in the same manner that Apple fanboys away the introduction of the newest iPhone.
In the end, though, as Gene Healy notes, most State of the Union addresses end up being forgotten almost as they have ended:
Quick: Give me a memorable line from any of President Obama’sprevious five SOTUs. That’s what I thought. I couldn’t give you one offhand — and it’s my job to watch these pompous, unedifying spectacles and write about them.
The few enduring lines from past SOTUs stick out for irony value (Bill Clinton in 1996: “the era of big government is over”); because they herald a looming policy disaster (George W. Bush in 2002: “Axis of Evil”) — or for the rare outbreak of candor (Gerald Ford in 1975: “the state of the union is not good”).
But most years, the speech gets submerged in the churn of the news cycle, little noted and not long remembered. It’s unlikely that 2014 will be any different. In its modern form, the SOTU is a meaningless ritual that rarely even does the president — let alone the public — any good.
“There is overwhelming evidence that presidents, even great communicators,’ rarely move the public in their direction,” writes George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. “Going public does not work.” In a 2013 analysis of SOTU polling, Gallup found that“most presidents have shown an average decrease in approval of one or more points between the last poll conducted before the State of the Union and the first one conducted afterward.”
As the speech has become less important, presidents’ rhetoric has grown more frantically stentorian. Presidential scholar Elvin T. Lim notes “increasing rhetorical assertiveness” and “an increasing lack of humility” in the language of the SOTU over time. Modern presidents speak more often of “reform,” while “references to (and hence concern for) the Constitution and constitutional in the annual messages have declined.
Perhaps it’s just a sign of advancing age, but I’ve grown to dread these events. All these advance hype, whether or not the speech represents any notable departure in presidential intentions or even rhetoric. All the solemn advice offered after the text has surely been put to bed. All the almost-ironic rituals of insincere bipartisanship and phony bonhomie.
This year’s SOTU will likely represent an agenda of items the president thinks he can accomplish on his own, perhaps with a shout-out to an immigration reform contingency that Republican feel compelled to entertain as a possibility, perhaps a defiant defense of the Affordable Care Act, perhaps the long-awaited peroration on inequality (though the latest buzz is that Obama will return to the less threatening language of “opportunity,” which suggests some extensive focus-grouping). The president will be subject to vast exercises in armchair psychology as his mood, his energy-level, his “resolve,” are evaluated by way of how he delivers a rehearsed prepared text.
Personally, I have trouble engaging in such evaluations, being constantly distracted by the idiotic ritual of clapping and not clapping, standing and not standing, and the full range of mime-like facial contortions, to which we will be treated by the Vice President and the Speaker of the House sitting just behind the president.
Once the agony of the SOTU is over, of course, we get to watch the canned Response of the Republican Party, which is mostly remarkable when it’s so bad that it damages the lucky designee’s national reputation for years to come.
Veteran political analyst Charlie Cook, meanwhile, urges his readers not to watch the address at all:
Tuesday the nation will watch Washington’s annual State of the Union Kabuki dance.
The president’s speechwriters will have started out to craft an important and thoughtful speech, determined to avoid having their boss deliver another really boring monologue that is both a laundry list of what the president wants to do and what he would do if the opposition party and special-interest groups rolled over and played dead for the rest of the year. But by the end of the process, despite the best of intentions, it will very likely sound like all of the others. Journalists will solemnly pronounce that this speech is critical for President Obama because of blah, blah, and blah, proclaiming that this State of the Union address is everything but life or death. Then, as soon as the speech is finished, media sycophants, members of the president’s party, and ideological brethren will say that it was a momentous address, one that truly rivaled Lincoln’s at Gettysburg, while the opposition party and its toadies will declare it so wrongheaded and the delivery so bad that they wonder if something might be wrong with the president.
We will also witness several dozen members of Congress spending the better part of the day claiming and holding seats near the House chamber’s center aisle, in hopes of getting shown on national television, or perhaps even shaking hands or exchanging a few words with the president. One wonders how their constituents would feel if they knew that their representatives were little more than political groupies. Unsaid is that for many of these lawmakers, it is the only personal interaction with the president they will ever have.
This is the way it always goes, regardless of who the president is, whether he is a Democrat or a Republican, or whether Congress is of the same party, in opposition hands, or divided. It is inevitable. On my deathbed—hopefully many, many years from now—this will be on the long list of hours that I will wish I could retrieve and spend doing almost anything else, even watching old television reruns.
Coverage of the State of the Union address is one of the few times when the media is playing along with the politicians. Print journalists want their articles read, so they hype up the importance of the event. Television and radio producers, along with correspondents, want their broadcasts seen, so they play things up as well.
The president’s party will talk about how great the speech was, and the opposition party will counter with how bad it was. Most people will just yawn and wish they hadn’t wasted over an hour of their life watching something that they will remember little of a week later.
For many political pundits, social media networks such as blogs, Twitter, and Facebook have meant that the State of the Union, or SOTU as it has come to be called in the shorthand used online, have turned the address into an opportunity to snark at the speech and the various participants in the entire ridiculous spectacle. Additionally, we’ve seen the advent of various drinking games that have no doubt helped fill the coffers of the alcohol industry. Indeed, if you’re looking for a good night of political mocking online you’d be hard pressed to find anything better than a State Of The Union Address except perhaps the Presidential debates that will no doubt be starting in about 15 months from now.
Beyond the comedy, though, it’s really hard to see any point to the events that will take place in Congress in just a few hours from now. President Obama will lay out an agenda using mostly vague brushstrokes and generalities. Whatever specifics he mentions will be mostly dead on arrival just as they have been at least since the GOP took control of the House if not earlier than that. Democrats will applaud everything the President says and Republicans will mostly sit on their hands. Speaker John Boehner and Vice-President Biden will be sitting behind the President engaged in a competition to see which one looks least likely to fall asleep half way through a speech that, needlessly, will likely last more than a hour, and everyone else in the Chamber will sit there wondering why they didn’t just go out for drinks at the Old Ebbitt Grill or Off The Record instead of subjecting themselves to this nonsense. Then, when its all over, the cable networks will spend at least the next two days pontificating about the speech at the same time that it quickly fades from public memory just as every other State Of The Union address has done. Except perhaps for the enjoyment of staying up late and snarking online while enjoying adult beverages, the entire spectacle is really quite a waste of time.
So, you really have two options tonight. You can subject yourself to a speech that will end up being utterly meaningless, or you can find something else to do. If you choose the first option, though, I suggest you follow a viewing guide such as this so that the whole thing isn’t so utterly painful that it gives you nightmares tonight.