When the State of the Union speech comes upon us each year, someone invariably makes the argument that this ritual should be put out of its misery.
This year it’s Charles C.W. Cooke of National Review Online’s turn to write, “As a matter of basic constitutional propriety, there is something unutterably rotten about the State of the Union.”
Well, not really. Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution begins, “He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
O.K., I’m sure the Founding Fathers didn’t envision a day when the President would ask Congress to consider measures like free community college to be necessary and expedient. But the Constitution does call for the President to communicate with Congress on the State of the Union from time to time. As far as from time to time goes, once a year would seem sufficient. It is true that the Constitution doesn’t specify that the President has to convey this information in person. But neither does the Constitution prohibit the President from gaining entry into Congress.
It is also true that for most of this country’s history, the President has issued the State of the Union address in writing. Cooke might curse FDR as an imperial president for making the State of the Union address an oral statement, but the last President who delivered a written State of the Union address was Jimmy Carter, who did so in the dying days of his presidency in 1981.
Carter would be succeeded by Ronald Reagan who during his two terms as the Great Communicator turned the State of the Union into an art form. It was Reagan who began the tradition of inviting ordinary citizens who did extraordinary things to his very first State of the Union address in 1982 when he acknowledged the heroism of a government employee named Lenny Skutnik, who a week earlier had jumped into icy the Potomac River and rescued a passenger following the crash of Air Florida Flight 90.
I’m sure much of Cooke’s consternation against the State of the Union is caused by the man delivering the speech rather than the spectacle itself. In all of his State of the Union addresses, President Obama will probably be most remembered for lambasting the Supreme Court over the Citizens United decision, with the Supremes having to sit there and take it save for Justice Alito who could be seen saying, “Not true.” He has not attended another State of the Union address since.
A couple of years ago, I made the case that Republicans should walk out on President Obama en masse during the State of the Union. Believe me, I still want to see it happen. It would be a moment in American political history not soon forgotten. Last year, Texas GOP Congressman Steve Stockman did walk out, but a walk out doesn’t really work unless it’s done in large numbers.
Cooke saves most of his scorn for Congress for allowing the President to come into their territory in the first place. He concludes by asking, “But why, one has to wonder, does Congress continue to applaud the charade?”
It’s quite simple, really. Congressmen want to be seen on TV. And on Facebook and on Twitter.
And why shouldn’t they be? Like it or not, politics is theater. It is a spectacle that is sometimes comical and sometimes tragic. At the end of Act One, Act Two is sure to follow. With the State of the Union comes the State of the Union response. It has been a part of this annual ritual since the Johnson administration. Sure some Republican responses have been more successful than others. This year it’s newly minted Iowa Senator Joni Ernst’s turn at bat. Ernst knows how to use political theater. She went from obscure candidate in the Republican primary to front-runner after running an ad that mentioned “hog castration.” Those two words would give the GOP a majority in the Senate. After tonight, Ernst might cut more than Obama’s speech to bits. So I’ll be tuning in.
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