The State of the Union address is a method of compressing partisan lies into an hour-or-two-long speech (or -three, in the case of Bill Clinton).
The annual speech tells Congress and the entire United States what The President thinks. It is received in a room full of crusty and aging legislators who long ago lost their souls and have no lodestar except the desire to:
- Bask in the reflected glory of the President's presence, and
- Have all their impressionable constituents watch them doing so and thereby get the impression they have a fraction of the President's charisma.
Federal law provides that, in addition to his annual salary of $400,000, the President gets one evening a year in a chamber where a crowd of fawning wannabes will deliriously applaud him for saying nothing of substance, and where everyone in the country can see that they did. This is not just a fringe benefit for the President, but reassures even the most incompetent American citizen that his poorest and most meaningless work might have someone welcome it, by virtue of the welcomer being even worse — or might lead to a lifetime sinecure, if he can simply find a boss who is eager to be surrounded by suck-ups.
Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution tasks the President to "from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the Union, to recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient, or failing that, to advise the same as to how far to bend over."
It is a perennial mystery to Constitutional scholars why the small document that set out three co-equal branches contains this loophole directing two of them to kiss the butt of one of them every year.
In fact, the Constitution does not say the entire Congress has to sit through an entire speech and act interested. George Washington, the first President, put on noisome airs about not wanting America to have a king, but succumbed to the vanity of having Congress dote on every word he whistled through wooden false teeth as though they were his subjects. John Adams continued the tradition, as he never consulted the governing documents and simply assumed he was required to.
Thomas Jefferson, however, broke with tradition, the entire decade of it. He suffered from a speech impediment and did not care to describe to Congress the ch-ch-ch-changes! the country was going through. Jefferson's break with tradition became the tradition for the next two dozen Presidents, who did not come to the Capitol but simply wrote a memo, and this was even before they could email it with one mouse click and be done with it.
Then Woodrow Wilson, who was essentially a cracker Barack Obama, told the nation that his election deprecated everything that had come before, and that the American people deserved to hear the remarks of the nearest thing they had to a king. Calvin Coolidge, old "Silent Cal," reversed this move (being, after all, "silent") but the number of Presidents since him who could pass up an evening being the center of attention for an entire nation could not dance on the head of even a very large pin.
Giving the address
Even though a President will get delirious applause from one side of the chamber or the other no matter what he says, Presidents should still try to do the job correctly.
His first State of the Union address should explain that the State of the Union is horrible. The nation is virtually in crisis — it might not survive another year — and the only answer is emergency legislation to close loopholes in the law, end the current unfairness, and above all, to spend unprecedented amounts of money to "stimulate" the nation, each $1 spent inducing many dollars of economic activity.
The second and third addresses thank Congress for the bills it has passed. They tout all the good things done with the new spending, ignore how much of it reached its destination rather than the pockets of big campaign donors, downplay the unexpected layoffs and bankruptcies in the private sector, and claim that the unpatriotic companies that moved to Ireland or opened call centers in Pakistan deserve additional harsh legislation. The experienced President understands that either complete success or abject failure is a valid reason to do twice as much of the same thing.
The President's fourth State of the Union address is challenging. The State of the Union must be sufficiently improved to show that the President is a policy wizard, but still sufficiently in crisis to convince the nation to re-up for another four years of him.
If a President gets to give eight addresses, the eighth one portrays the State of the Union as nearly perfect. Nothing more needs to be done. Nevertheless, the nation should elect the next President from the same party, to ensure that it is done right.
- ↑ Exception: If you are Barack Obama, it should explain that the Summer of Recovery is still just around the corner, if we can get all this darned adversarial partisanship to stop, so the President no longer has to pass laws and spend money on his own.
In the age of television, the President surrounds himself with refugees, orphans, young women who inexplicably found themselves with eight mouths to feed, and an empty chair standing for an American who would have been a hero but had to move to Canada to dodge the draft. That is, he needs a ton of props.
Props show that the President does not spend his time studying National Security briefings, reading the U.S. Code to see what changes to ask Congress to make, meeting with foreign diplomats and titans of industry, hob-nobbing with celebrities or Congressional power-brokers, or taking Air Force One to continual golf vacations, with his prima donna wife and the in-laws riding in a separate Boeing 747 because she has a speech to give on reducing our carbon footprint. Rather, he spends all his time hearing the tearful stories of pitiable failures just like the ones gathered around him on the stage, remembering the names of each of them, and reinventing his life story to match theirs. He was where each of these wide-eyed Street Urchins is now, but he pulled himself up, not by his bootstraps but with the help of a federal law just like the ones he is asking Congress to pass now.
As the purpose of the State of the Union address is to assemble a grand circus with the President on top, the U.S. Supreme Court occupies seats of honor. This independent branch of government can hear the President make proposals — and tell them how stupid he thinks some of their own rulings were. This is not improper, but if any Justice shakes his head, that will be.
This may seem like a double standard, but only because it is. Similarly, the President is free to tell lies, while Members of Congress are not free to blurt out exclamations such as, "You lie!" This famous utterance of Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), after a 2009 lie that Obama-care would not mean more freebies for border-crashers, ruined a promising political career, and not the one he set out to ruin. Wilson did not realize that no one comes to Washington to find out what is true or false, nor to engage in debate and factual rebuttal, but to boss everyone else around and to freeload on the lobbyist dime.
In the third ring sit the Joint Chiefs of Staff from all the branches of the military. The speech has nothing to do with military strategy or military preparedness, and the brass would do better sharpening the bayonets than gazing at a collection of pointed heads. But the President and every Member of Congress has, since his squalid former life in a dusty State Capitol, surrounded himself with men in uniform to show him that he is the Big Dog. That is, these Generals are additional props. Presumably they did not bring bombs with them. However, if they did, it is all right, because all of the President's enemies are conveniently assembled in the same room.
American voters are advised when the State of the Union will be given. It used to be that the speech would be broadcast on all of the nation's exactly three television networks that covered its exactly two political parties, and people used to believe that this display of obsequy to the President outweighed the lunacy of having the same program on every channel. This ended when Survivor was invented; also when Bill Clinton's manic ad-libs threatened to push aside even more sit-coms than the Commander-in-chief had commandeered originally and several networks declined to cover the speech.
Even in the old days, there were a handful of non-network television stations, and Americans could switch to the basketball game. Later, Americans could watch a colorized repeat of The Andy Griffith Show on Classic TV and ignore the fact that he would not have been able to watch the original airing of the episode because the State of the Union was on. Nowadays, everyone can watch anything he wants, whenever he wants, on his smartphone, and no one wants to watch the President jive about what he did last year and what he wants everyone else to do next year.
Nevertheless, the speech is the only topic for conversation the next morning standing around the coffee pot at work. Virtually no one watched it but everyone wants to be sure he did not miss anything.
Following the speech, commentators "spin" what the President said. His backers assert that it proves that the President is "still on his game," while those of opposing parties say that his pointless policy proposals prove that he has finally "jumped the shark" and that the opposition will finally dominate Washington, D.C., a role for which they would otherwise have to actually achieve a majority vote.
Legislators play a variety of pissing games to secure a seat by the aisle and thereby have a chance to shake the President's hand as he approaches the podium, as though selling a con job to the district of Grand Rapids, Michigan could hold a candle to the President's prowess in convincing the entire U.S. to vote for him.
This does not mean that Congressmen will do whatever the President asks them to do. He has his constituency, and they have theirs. The State of the Union speech is not about the President "from time to time giving to the Congress information of the state of the Union" as the Constitution requires. It never has been. It is about him from time to time:
- Giving Congress a laundry list of new departments to set up that will not do the job,
- Declaring new human rights that render their beneficiaries unable to get a job, and
- Reorganizing government departments under catch-all titles such as Human Services and Homeland Security and Consumer Protection that will make a grand statement about the President's character without really changing a thing.
Congressmen interrupt the President's applause an average of forty times with obsequious applause, including standing ovations. They are delirious at the chance to show they can cheer for proposals they do not intend to cooperate with. After all, they were elected on the basis of being a bigger phony than their opponent, and only wish they had more than one major chance per year to prove it.
In the modern era, when Americans do not know what they believe or especially why, everything from the State of the Union to holiday greetings to eulogies merits a rebuttal from the opposition party. This means that a junior member of Congress gives a speech, respectfully shorter than the President's, setting out the minority party's ideas [sic]. As in the "weekly radio address," the minority party always picks an entirely different subject rather than address anything the President said. Instead, they just talk across one another.
Were the opposition party rebuttal to be a rebuttal, the opposition party would have to have a plan of action. Instead, the junior member gives a flowery talk about Reaching Across the Aisle and offering half-measures that the opposition hopes will keep the President from delivering such scathing ridicule of it, next year. The party believes that citizens have a basic right to be free from having to hear the party being criticized.
Unlike the State of the Union, the Opposition Response features several time-outs, a half-time break, and instant replay with booth review, to let the networks earn money through commercials. This is the only way they agree to broadcast it at all. This, and the inherent lack of grace, convince viewers they are watching a football game, and that is the only way they stick with it to the end.
As the Constitution apparently limits the U.S. to exactly two political parties, it also limits public discussion to exactly two plans of action, which means there can be only one Opposition Response. This frees the public from listening to a variety of alternatives, some of which might create a "hostile environment" for the listener.
Which legislator gives the rebuttal is subject to the same pissing contests as who gets an aisle seat. The job always goes to a legislator who has cooperated with his party's leadership. This means that, if you see your own Congressman on national television, he sold his vote on one or more bills for this chance to join the festival of self-promotion; he declined to vote the way he told you he would, in order to try to coast to re-election on the coat-tails of the President he told you he loathed.