On Tuesday, President Obama delivered his final State of the Union Address. Yes, go ahead and smile. Aside from a random press conference and his farewell address, and baring an unforeseen horrible event (fingers crossed), he won’t be in our faces again. Thank God!
That said, it’s time we re-evaluate the concept of the State of the Union speech.
Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution says the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information on the state of the union…” Were it not for television, this would be a non-event.
But since we can’t rid ourselves of a media hungry to fill 24 hours and narcissists seeking elected office, there will be no escape from this ritual for the foreseeable future. Sorry, future.
Since we can’t fight the inevitable, how about we take a look at what this ritual has become.
I use President Obama in this example not because he’s awful, though he is, but because he’s current. There is no SOTU address in recent memory the world couldn’t have lived without – not Bill Clinton’s endless ramblings still echoing in the emptiness of space, or even George W. Bush’s nail-biting “what will he mispronounce next” exercises. None are memorable.
President Bush did deliver one of the greatest presidential speeches in history in his address to a joint session of Congress after 9/11, but that wasn’t a State of the Union. President Clinton could deliver a barnburner – but on the campaign trail, not the Hill.
Even President Obama can read a teleprompter with the skill of De Niro when in front of an adoring crowd.
So why can’t these people, these leaders, deliver when the whole country is watching?
“To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles…” Everyone knows those words from Hamlet, so when you hear them you aren’t exactly moved by anything other than the performance of them. Such is the case with the State of the Union.
There is no mystery, not that there should be, in what a president is going to say in this speech. So what’s the point?
It’s become a wish list of agenda items, a child reading a letter to Santa.
When the country was founded there was no television. Congress was part-time, and the president was the main full-time employee of the federal government. It made sense that he would inform Congress, from time to time, what’s going on in the country. When they returned to Washington for a session, much time had passed, things had changed. They needed to be briefed.
They no longer need to be briefed in that way.
It’s time to end this spectacle. Not forever, and not completely, but as it is now: a political pep rally for whichever party happens to hold the White House at any given moment.
Taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize political theater, and the nation should not be subjected to its president patting himself on the back for at least an hour.
The Speaker of the House can make this change himself. The president must be invited to deliver the address by the Speaker, and the Speaker sets the date.
Paul Ryan could start this ball rolling right now by announcing the next president, whoever it is, won’t be asked to report on the state of our union for a year after assuming office. The update on the state of the union is required by the Constitution, so it can’t, nor should, be ended. But it doesn’t have to be annually, nor does it have to be in person.
Ryan should announce now that the 2017 update on the state of the union will be received by Congress in writing, and the president will be invited in 2018 to deliver it in person. Every other year in person, with written updates in between, is more than enough to settle the “time to time” presidential requirement.
If something arose warranting an address to that nation before a joint session of Congress, it easily can be arranged. But the theater of the absurd the State of the Union has become need not be at all.
Our union is strong enough to survive the significant failings of the occupants of the office of the president, so it’s surely strong enough to survive the loss of this subsidized campaign ad.