I really can’t believe it. Even Obama, I’ve always assumed, doesn’t want to do the SOTU but feels bound by a basic rule of politics in the age of mass media, that when television offers you a free platform to reach many millions of voters, you’ve got to take it. There’s no way to redeem a laborious 45-minute run-through of your party’s current policy wishlist, so don’t sweat it when it lands with a thud. Just show up, if only to show your party that you’re still trying.
And yet, here’s a line from his former speechwriter about the SOTU-writing process. What are we to make of this?
President Obama always wanted the speech to “sing,” as he put it
O does realize that not only have all five of his previous SOTUs been essentially the same, they’re also essentially the same as every SOTU delivered over the past 30 years, no? Watch the two clips below, or revisit Matt Welch’s guide on how to write an SOTU in 10 minutes using the same platitudinal flotsam that’s been salvaged and recycled by every president since JFK. Trying to make this speech sing is like trying to make a rendition of “Happy Birthday” sound transcendent. If you’re approaching it that way, you’re missing the point.
The long march begins at 9 p.m. ET but there’s usually some red-carpet-type stupidity happening half an hour or so before that on the cable news nets or C-SPAN. One of the “Duck Dynasty” guys will be there; so will pro basketball player/notable gay man Jason Collins; so will that kid who claimed to be one of the first people in America to sign up for ObamaCare before everyone realized that he hadn’t really signed up. In a few years, as the see-and-be-seen value of this spectacle completely overwhelms its news-making value, members of Congress will start inviting A-list celebrities for fun and the White House Correspondents Dinner-ization of the event will be complete. Which, actually, would be fitting: As Kevin Williamson writes, the SOTU long ago devolved into a dreary imitation of monarchy. Might as well have all the aristocrats there to watch.
The annual State of the Union pageant is a hideous, dispiriting, ugly, monotonous, un-American, un-republican, anti-democratic, dreary, backward, monarchical, retch-inducing, depressing, shameful, crypto-imperial display of official self-aggrandizement and piteous toadying, a black Mass during which every unholy order of teacup totalitarian and cringing courtier gathers under the towering dome of a faux-Roman temple to listen to a speech with no content given by a man with no content, to rise and to be seated as is called for by the order of worship — it is a wonder they have not started genuflecting — with one wretched representative of their number squirreled away in some well-upholstered Washington hidey-hole in order to preserve the illusion that those gathered constitute a special class of humanity without whom we could not live…
The State of the Union is only one example of the deepening, terrifying cult of the state that has taken root here. Many heads of state — and some royals, for that matter — fly on commercial aircraft. Presidents of the Swiss federation and members of the federal council receive . . . an unlimited train pass. They have occasional access to a Cessna maintained by the air force, but are known to use mass transit — just like the people they are elected to represent. An American president stages a Roman triumph every time he heads out for a round of golf. The president’s household costs well more than $1 billion annually to operate. The president’s visage is more ubiquitous than was Vladimir Lenin’s in his prime, his reach Alexandrian, his sense of immortality (they call it “legacy”) pharaonic. Washington has become a deeply weird and alien place, a Renaissance court with armored sedans and hundred-million-dollar paydays.
Excerpts from Obama’s speech have been released as I write this but I’m not going to go looking for them because who cares? You’ve heard all this before. The only somewhat new element, in perfect keeping with Williamson’s point, is that O will assert his royal prerogative to carry out his agenda via executive order if Congress refuses to comply. He’s semi-formally dispensing with the trappings of republican democracy at an event tailor-made for the occasion. Beyond that, the speech is Groundhog Day: It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna feel like it’ll last you for the rest of your life.
If you somehow make it all the way through, stay tuned for three — yes, really — GOP rebuttals. Cathy McMorris-Rogers will deliver the official one, doubtless featuring a specific appeal to women. Mike Lee will deliver a tea-party response blaming government for inequality and proposing new opportunities for the middle class. And Rand Paul, as is now tradition, will deliver a response of his own emphasizing Americans’ perennial top priority, jobs. Enjoy.