SOTU, So What

Last night was the State of the Union address. We didn’t watch it, because we just can’t bear the pomp and scripted ovations. The trappings of the State of the Union address seem as phony and forced as the broadcasts of the Oscars, the Grammys, or the Golden Globes.

The Constitution, in Article II, section 3, requires the President to “give to the Congress information on the State of the Union.” It’s a worthwhile concept as well as a constitutional requirement, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be done in person. In fact, after the first two Presidents gave their reports on the State of the Union in person, Thomas Jefferson decided to send a written report instead — and no President gave a State of the Union speech in person again for more than 100 years, until Woodrow Wilson did so in 1913. That means that colossal American historical figures like Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt never gave a live State of the Union speech. The country survived nevertheless.

Now Presidents give the speech in person as a matter of course. It’s a chance for some free air time and an opportunity to display the majesty of the presidency and its role in our system of government. And supposedly it allows the President to set the agenda, although that really isn’t the case any more and hasn’t been so for a long time. If you were to review the legislative initiatives, policy proposals, and promises made in the SOTU speeches given over the last 25 years, you would find that only a tiny fraction ever are realized. President Obama undoubtedly added to that list with his speech last night.

What is the State of the Union? I don’t need a speech to know: divided, and troubled. The economy remains a source of deep concern for most Americans. Our administrative state seems to be too large, too intrusive, and too uncontrolled. The President’s popularity has fallen dramatically, and neither political party is trusted to change things for the better. It tells you something about the splintered State of the Union when the opposition party has three different representatives, representing three different factions, give responses.

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