State Of The Union

Tonight President Donald Trump gives his first speech to a joint session of Congress.  It’s not being called a State of the Union speech, because by tradition a President is supposed to be in office a year before giving a State of the Union speech — but effectively, this speech is a SOTU.

gettyimages-84211317I’m trying to decide whether to watch.  As a general rule, I hate the bloviations and the planned standing ovations and the other political theater that has become part of any presidential speech to a joint session of Congress, and you’d be hard pressed to identify any SOTU speech that was especially memorable.

At the same time, even months after his election and weeks after his inauguration, I’m still having a difficult time comprehending that Donald Trump is the President.  It’s like I’m expecting that somebody else will step out from behind a curtain.  So maybe watching tonight’s speech, and seeing Trump walk down the aisle after the Sergeant at Arms of the United States House of Representatives bellows “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States,” will help to make Trump’s status as President more real.

I don’t expect Trump to say anything particularly meaningful, because that’s not what speeches to joint sessions of Congress are all about.  Instead, they tend to be laundry lists of proposals that, for the most part, are never heard from again.  When you think about it, the rapid-fire listing of initiatives that we often hear in such speeches is a lot more in line with Trump’s approach to speech-making than, say, what we expect from an inaugural address.  He doesn’t need to try to develop flowery language or deliver memorable phrases.  The SOTU and other presidential addresses to joint sessions are more like a CEO’s speech to shareholders at an annual meeting for a corporation.

Of course, the core purpose of the State of the Union is to discuss the state of the country, and even though this speech might not technically be a SOTU, we can expect President Trump to address that topic.  Presidents tend to characterize the state of the union through their own lens, and often what they describe seems to have little to do with what many of us perceive.  President Trump probably will say that we’ve got big problems in a number of areas.  We’ll hear about immigration, and tax reform, and repealing Obamacare, and trying to keep manufacturing jobs in the United States, and the other themes that seem to be part of every Trump speech.

What do I think is the state of the union these days?  If I had to describe it in one word, that word would be “divided.”

Cranking Up The Old Money Machine

President Obama’s State of the Union speech this week drew the lowest ratings in 15 years.  Why?  Because this is America, and we get bored with anything that’s been around for six years.  The President is old news, and nothing he says or does in a wooden speech to politely attentive members of Congress is going to change that reality.

And let’s not forget, too, that we’ve turned the calendar to 2015 — which is the year before the next presidential election, which means we’re due to be bombarded with an increasing barrage of news stories about the would-be candidates who want to take the President’s place at the podium.  As if on cue, supporters of Hillary Clinton have made it known that she will be receiving financial commitments for her anticipated campaign that will be “astounding.”  Their goal in lining up an immediate avalanche of cash is intimidate potential opponents and cause them to refrain from challenging Clinton in the first place.  It’s like a “shock and awe” military campaign applied to American politics.

The article about the Clinton effort doesn’t say what would constitute money commitments that are “astounding” and “like nothing you’ve ever seen,” and it’s hard to imagine that sheer numbers are going to boggle the mind given the amounts being spent on political campaigns already.  The Federal Election Commission estimates, for example, that about $7 billion was spent on the 2012 election.  We’ve come to expect big spending on politics, and many of us get email fundraising appeals every day — even now, with no election on the horizon.  So where is the shock level?  $20 billion?  $50 billion?  $100 billion?

Money is important in politics, obviously, but ultimately money is just money.  Americans spend lots of money on lots of things, such as $7.4 billion on Halloween, $20.5 billion on video games, and $73.9 billion on soda.  You can buy commercial time and produce slick ad campaigns, but if your message isn’t resonating with voters you’re not going to win.

Perhaps the Clinton money machine will scare away some contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, but those fraidy-cats probably weren’t serious challengers, anyway.  If there are politicians out there who truly believe in their positions and want to use a presidential bid to forcefully advocate them, they aren’t going to be cowed by mere money, no matter how much it is.  And don’t forget that America loves an underdog.  A spunky candidate who is seen as bravely challenging the establishment and the aura of inevitability might make that “astounding” amount of money seem like chump change.

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.

Getting “Our Financial House In Order” And Playing “Talking Points” Bingo

The older I get, the more I am irked by the incessant use of “talking points.”  It’s bad enough that we all know that “talking points” are prepared for every governmental figure who is the subject of an interview, but it’s even worse when the “talking points” are used so often that the canned nature of the supposedly spontaneous “interview” becomes obvious to even the dullest citizen.  And it is even worse when the “talking points” use a phrase that is so devoid of meaning that they reflect an intent to obfuscate rather than enlighten.

Melody Barnes

So it was this morning, when NPR’s Morning Edition broadcast an “interview” with Melody Barnes, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, about tonight’s State of the Union speech.  (The transcript of the interview is here.)  The programmed nature of Barnes’ responses became clear immediately, when she used “financial house in order” twice during her answer to the very first question.  At that point, I felt like I should be playing “talking points bingo” and taking a slug of beer every time she used the phrase during the interview.  And in fact she used it at least two more times.  Wasn’t she embarrassed to keep repeating the same thing over and over?  I’m sure she is an intelligent, witty person, but the constant resort to the “talking points” made her sound like a robot.  When I got home I checked, and sure enough Press Secretary Robert Gibbs used the same “fiscal house in order” comment in his briefing yesterday.  I’d be willing to bet that the other Obama Administration officials being interviewed elsewhere in the media today used “getting our financial house in order” repeatedly in their responses to questions.

What does getting our “financial house in order” even mean?  It sounds like a carefully focus group-tested phrase that every listener infuses with her or his own meaning.  Some may think it means raising taxes, some may think it means cutting spending, and some may think it means “investing” through more government spending.  It doesn’t have any true meaning — and that is probably the point.  It’s a way of sounding like you are saying something without saying anything at all.

If President Obama uses the phrase “getting our financial house in order” during his State of the Union speech I will be disappointed — and I’ll probably say “bingo” and drink a beer.  I’m sick of politicians who won’t tell us what they actually intend to do, and even sicker of politicians who play ridiculous word games to try to mask their true plans.

Please, Not More “Stimulus”!

Tomorrow President Obama gives his State of the Union speech.  Advance stories indicate that the speech will focus on the economy — no surprise there! — and that the President will call for more government “investment” in science, education, and innovation.

“Investment” is, of course, just a code word for more government spending.  The only reason the word “stimulus” isn’t used any more is that it has acquired deadly connotations for American voters, who recognize that the initial “stimulus” package was a leaden failure that grossly increased the federal debt without producing much in exchange. Doesn’t “investment” in “education” and “science” sound an awful lot like using our tax dollars to pay for more government jobs?  And as for “investment” in “innovation,” is there really anyone out there who thinks that members of Congress or government bureaucrats could distinguish true innovation from a cracked pumpkin?

We may find out tomorrow that the President has a great plan — but until then, color me skeptical.  Whenever I hear the argument that the way out of our ongoing recessionary doldrums is still more government spending, I have the same horrified and anguished reaction as the poor, lost soul Richard depicted on the wonderful bit of “kid art” accompanying this posting.

Respect For The Tribunal (Cont.)

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has weighed in on President Obama’s State of the Union speech and, specifically, the President’s decision to directly criticize the Supreme Court for its recent campaign finance decision.  In response to a question from a University of Alabama law student, the Chief described the scene as “very troubling.” He noted, correctly, that the President has every right to disagree with and criticize the decisions of a coordinate branch of government, but that President Obama’s remarks ran afoul of considerations of decorum and propriety.  As I’ve posted before, I think the Chief Justice is right on that point.  In effect, President Obama used the Justices, who can only sit and listen, as a prop to score a few political points with his supporters, without showing proper respect for the Court or its role in attending the State of the Union address.  I predict that we’ve seen the last of Chief Justice Roberts — and perhaps any Supreme Court Justice — at a State of the Union speech.

When White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about Roberts’ comments, Gibbs’ response was wholly political — and therefore basically confirmed that President Obama’s motivation for making his comments in the first place were political as well.  Gibbs said:  “What is troubling is that this decision opened the floodgates for corporations and special interests to pour money into elections – drowning out the voices of average Americans.”  He added that “the President has long been committed to reducing the undue influence of special interests and their lobbyists over government. That is why he spoke out to condemn the decision and is working with Congress on a legislative response.”  What purpose is served by such comments except to try to advance a political agenda at the expense of the respect accorded to the judicial branch of our government as a neutral arbiter of constitutional disputes?

Respect For The Tribunal

I must candidly admit that I fell asleep during President Obama’s SOTU speech last night, so I didn’t witness, in real time, the President calling out the Supreme Court on its recent campaign finance ruling.  However, I’ve seen tapes of the President’s remarks (and Justice Alito’s reaction ) and I think the President acted improperly.

Perhaps the Supreme Court shouldn’t even attend the SOTU speech.  The Court is a non-political entity; when the Justices attend they sit there in their robes, listening respectfully but not applauding, a kind of living and stolid embodiment of the third branch of government.  I can’t remember a State of the Union speech where the President has ever directly challenged a Supreme Court decision.  Calling out the Court as the President did — knowing that the Court will make no response — is like a bully tormenting a kid in a wheelchair.  It is not particularly brave to taunt someone who can’t possibly respond.  For that reason, the President’s comments in that regard seemed like cheap political theatrics, and a bit presumptuous.

The Supreme Court is a limited, careful institution.  It decides actual controversies and often elects not to accept cases that have overt political elements.  The Court would never presume to reach out and issue an advisory opinion about, say, whether a statute that exempted Nebraska from ever paying for increased in Medicaid costs passes constitutional muster.  The Supreme Court has tried, and for the most part succeeded, in staying within its constitutional role.  The President should respect that role.  Last night, President Obama unfortunately failed to do so.  I wouldn’t blame our Supreme Court Justices if they skipped the SOTU from now on.

A Heartfelt SOTU Wish

I really dislike the State of the Union speech.  Has there ever been a truly memorable State of the Union speech?  In my adult lifetime, at least, they have uniformly been dull, much too long, and a grab-bag of turgid policy proposals tossed in to please various special interest groups and then quickly forgotten.  Who can sit for an hour or more and listen to a President rattle on about investment tax credits, or off-shore drilling, or whatever program suggestion has been submitted by the Secretary of Education or the Secretary of Health and Human Services?

If I had only one wish, however, it would be that President Obama start the speech by asking Members of Congress to refrain from any applause until the speech is over.  Nothing is more annoying than the forced and phony “standing ovations” and “speech interrupted by applause” incidents during the speech.  We would all be better off if the assembled dignitaries just sat on their hands, listened respectfully, and then filed quietly out of the House chamber, so that we can all get back to our lives (and our regularly scheduled programming) as quickly as possible.