Presented to this Congress are great opportunities. With them come great responsibilities. The power confided to us increases the weight of our obligations to the people, and we must be profoundly sensible of them as we contemplate the new and grave problems which confront us. Aiming only at the public good, we cannot err.
– William McKinley, State of the Union, 1899
We should do away with the State of the Union address.
Just get rid of it altogether.
No speeches. No rebuttals. No letters. Nothing.
It would take a Constitutional Amendment, sure, but I think we'd be healthier for it.
As I said yesterday on social media this address is the vermiform appendix of our republic. It’s a vestigial leftover organ from a more primitive democracy, back when congress really did represent the people.
Nowadays, the State of the Union address does little and serves mostly as a source of swollen inflammation ready to burst apart into full blown infection at any moment.
The original intention of the address was for the president to inform congress of the actual no kidding state of the union, the problems and the challenges, what was going well and what wasn't, and to in essence suggest the legislative agenda for the coming year. Here are the issues, get me some bills to address them, and I'll sign ‘em into law and we can get on with the business of running our country.
Back then, congress wasn't a full time job. Politician wasn't a career. There were no think-tanks and SuperPACs and no ‘round the clock news cycle. The men who made up congress were part time lawmakers. Most of the year they were farmers and industrialists and printers and brewers and lawyers and doctors spread across a vast new country in a time when the fastest form of communication was hand written letters carried in a sack on the back of a mule. And so they needed a periodic update from the nation’s full time leader.
Today? Congress is not only a full time job, it’s practically royalty.
Some senators and representatives have been there for more than forty years, they’ll likely die in office, and they spend far more time in Washington than they do among the people they're supposed to represent. They might as well be dukes and earls and barons. They are surrounded by a sea of minions, fops, toadies, and hangers-on, there are lawyers and lobbyists, clerks and secretaries, a multitude of assistants and a plethora of interns. They're plugged into a vast, vast political machine and an array of entrenched “expertise” coupled to think-tanks and political action committees and various institutes for “strategic studies.” They're immersed in the global information grid so deeply that they might as well be wired directly into the servers with fiber-optic cable.
Like I said last night, if congress doesn't already know the state of the country, an hour of listening to the president sure isn't going to bring them up to speed.
The first State of the Union address was given by George Washington, it was a grand total of 833 words and consisted mostly of ideas for building post roads and Navy ships. Thomas Jefferson didn't bother with a speech, he sent a brief letter to Congress, which was read by a clerk to the assembly – and that started a tradition which lasted for more than a century until Woodrow Wilson came along. Since Wilson, every president has given an annual speech, which in recent decades has predictably devolved into simple political theater. They all put on their best designer duds, the president gets up there and tells America that everything is great but it could be better while the Speaker of the House sits behind him rolling his eyes and making faces like a four-year old in a starched collar stuck in the middle of Sunday sermon, congress claps politely, everybody shakes hands, then they all go outside to talk to the press and get their pictures taken. The next day the press devotes a hundred thousand words to the detailed analysis of the First Lady’s dress.
Then it’s back to doing whatever it was they were doing until next year.
The State of the Union is basically the Golden Globes Award Show of American politics.
Well, that is, until Barack Obama came along, that’s when the State of the Union address became the Republican Grand High Holy Day of Booger Eating Insanity.
Nothing the president said last night was in any way unexpected or out of the ordinary for any president or any State of the Union speech. Economy blah blah Education blah blah Infrastructure blah blah Taxes yadda yadda thanks for coming everybody and don't forget, T-shirts are for sale in the lobby!
What is new, however, is that this congress has decided its mission is to scream in hysterical outrage and shout conspiracy theories in response to everything the president says.
Obama could say, "Hey, you know what? Screw it, you're right. On second thought, I've decided to get rid of Obamacare" and republicans would squint their eyes in suspicious patriotic outrage, furiously wave their little flags, and demand a national single payer healthcare program free to illegal immigrants with one bonus abortion and a deluxe box of Day-Glo pleasure-ribbed cherry-flavored condoms for each preschooler.
They had their rebuttal all set to go – though “rebuttal” is probably the wrong word since it had nothing whatsoever to do with the president’s actual speech and didn’t actually rebut anything he said – same as last year, and the year before, and the year before that. And just like last year they picked the most hardcore nutcase they could find to read it and the most amusing part of this morning's media summaries are those attempting to making some kind of sense from Joni Ernst’s corn-fueled Bachmannesque performance.
Obama said “economy, education, infrastructure, taxes” … and republicans heard “big government anti-Jesus is a comin' fer our little white babies and our guns with his Atomic Negro Ray of Smooth Chocolate Mojo OMFG! Ook! Ook! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES, EVERYBODY!”
Today they’re all pissing blood and declaring in various degrees of pumped up patriotic rage their refusal to compromise or cooperate in any way whatsoever.
And that right there – that, right there – is indeed the state of our Union.
For better or for worse, our government is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
It is a reflection of us, we the people of the United States of America.
And the state of our union is thus: we have become a nation of screeching chimps, capering about, teeth bared in fury, throwing handfuls of our own shit at each other.
And I didn’t need either the president or congress to tell me that.
See you next year. Same place. Same time.
President Washington began this tradition in 1790 after reminding the Nation that the destiny of self-government and the ‘preservation of the sacred fire of liberty’ is ‘finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.’ For our friends in the press, who place a high premium on accuracy, let me say: I did not actually hear George Washington say that.
- Ronald Reagan, State of the Union, 1982