So why the hell do we keep putting ourselves through this grueling ritual year after year? Shouldn’t we just go back to the days before Woodrow Wilson, where the State of the Union was conveyed in a simple letter to Congress?
No, we shouldn’t. And here’s why:
Along with a few championship games and award shows, the State of the Union is one of the few annual events that tens of millions of Americans still watch together, as a country. For a brief moment, we get to witness our system of government as the proud, democratic institution it was meant to be, not the sad, partisan spectacle it has too often become. Elected officials of both parties gather in one chamber, and (minus Joe Wilson) treat each other with civility, respect, and even warmth. Republicans will line up early to pose for pictures with President Obama, just as Democrats would reach over their colleagues to shake hands with President Bush. Sure, there are many times during the speech where one party applauds and the other does not. But there are many more times when both parties stand to cheer their president’s words: about our troops or our veterans; our children or our workers; our shared love of this country and its special, indispensible place in the world.
There are always a few jabs, but for the most part, this is a unifying, feel-good speech for a nation that desperately needs good feelings, and nowhere is that more true than in the stories we hear about ordinary Americans whose lives move us in extraordinary ways. One of Ronald Reagan’s greatest gifts to us was the inclusion of Lenny Skutnik in his 1982 State of the Union, the hero who rescued plane crash survivors from the sub-zero Potomac. Since then, every president has had the privilege of publicly recognizing such inspiration throughout his address.