Last night, I finally reached my limit on the State of the Union’s Nonsense Theater. I can even pinpoint the moment, thanks to Twitter. After years of pledging to swear off of the ridiculous pomp surrounding one of the least substantial political rituals in America, this is what pushed me over the edge:
— White House Archived (@ObamaWhiteHouse) January 21, 2015
The #YesWeTan hashtag was a lame trolling attempt; President Obama showed up in the traditional navy pinstripes. The White House just wanted to generate some fauxtraversy before the main event, although not too many people were willing to bite on it. It was the “suiting up” part that triggered my gag reflex, as though the State of the Union speech was The Big Game. The empty suit did, however, provide the perfect imagery for the entire exercise, as I argue in my column today for The Fiscal Times — and a great argument to make this SOTU the last:
This year’s exercise was a particularly empty one. Last October, President Obama explicitly linked his agenda to the midterm elections, only to watch his party suffer a disaster in both the House and Senate in November. Last night’s State of the Union speech took place in front of a Congress that has 80 more Republicans than when Obama first took office six years ago to the day. To the extent that there was any interest at all in this event outside of the Beltway and the commentariat, the key was whether Obama would acknowledge that rejection and build bridges with Republicans to find areas of compromise.
Instead, Obama acted like voters had no effect on him at all. As David Corn noted at Mother Jones, “Obama acted as if the last election had not occurred—or that, at least, it was not a defining moment.” Corn considered this being “bold” on Obama’s part, but for voters who had given Obama and his party a sound thrashing at the ballot box less than three months earlier, it sounds more like denial. So too did the laundry list of hyperbolic claims of success by Obama over the past year, given that 2014 was easily his worst in terms of job approval in his presidency.
Almost nothing Obama discussed has a prayer of getting a floor vote, let alone passage, in the 114th Congress. The wish list was so improbable that CBS’ Bob Schieffer reacted in disbelief when Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer unveiled it on Face the Nation two days earlier. Obama hadn’t bothered to put that agenda before the Democratic-controlled 111th Congress Schieffer pointed out, especially the $320 billion in new tax hikes. “Is this for real?” Schieffer demanded.
Of course it’s not for real. It’s just for theater, a silly show for silly people who are interested only in posturing rather than actual governance.
Even with all of the above, it’s just another speech — and therein lies the problem. The spectacle so far outstrips the substance that it makes a mockery of accountable government. The President enters to the kind of fanfare that greeted conquerors in older times, and Congress — which is supposed to be co-equal with the President — offers dozens of fawning and obsequious standing ovations to cheer what is usually utter drivel. In recent SOTUs, this President doesn’t even bother with courteous reciprocity; instead, he uses the platform to mock his opponents in order to score cheap points with pundits pretending that any of this matters a single whit. Most of the commentariat couldn’t recall more than a couple of points from the previous SOTU, and we do this for a living. Voters couldn’t care less, which is why ratings for these nonsense events have been declining for two decades, especially as a percentage of the overall population.
Matt Lewis argues that we need to get rid of the SOTU responses as well:
To be fair, much of the problem is structural. There is an inherent and insurmountable disadvantage for any member of the opposition party who is unfortunate enough to be tapped to deliver the official response. The president has the trappings of power. He is positioned from on high, and is frequently interrupted by applause.
Conversely, the response is usually delivered by a much less-seasoned politician in a much less grand milieu. This is typically a person sitting in a dark room by themselves looking into a camera. It’s almost destined to look shoddy in comparison to the spectacle of the State of the Union.
True — but that disparity occurs in large part because Congress and the media allow it to exist. In fact, they go out of their way to create it by inflating the importance of what is always — always — a campaign-speech wish list that bears little reality to the twelve months that follow it. The spectacle is designed to demean Congress, so its success should surprise no one, but it should serve as a warning flare about our strange inclination to participate in the exaltation of the executive.
The Constitution requires a report from the President on the “state of the Union” in order for Congress to meet its duty to provide oversight on the executive branch’s operations. It’s turned into a grotesque parody that mocks the co-equality of the branches of government and the importance of the checks on executive power that the founders wanted from this requirement. No President will willingly go back to the pre-Woodrow Wilson days of the SOTU report, but the rest of us can curtail the nonsense by refusing to buy into it. From now on, I’ll just read the speeches — and cheer if this charade ever comes to an end.