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The State of the Union Spectacle Should Not Become a Circus

Jan 21, 2015

I’ll be brief, as of course the president was not last night.

As you might expect, I am partial to Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union speeches. I worked on their preparation. Ronald Reagan truly was the Great Communicator, and, though historians may prove me wrong, it was Reagan who started the practice of introducing American heroes and model citizens while speaking, having arranged their seating in the gallery.

President Obama’s prowess as an orator should never be denied. He delivers his lines with eloquence and grace, pausing artfully when needed, ad-libbing just as he’d practiced, appealing to politically transcendent sensibilities as a device to sell his political programs. And, I’ll say it, making untruths sound like truths.

Lying with numbers has long been a political art form, but there is no excuse for crediting one’s self for a lower unemployment rate when participation in the work force as reached historic lows; for pretending to be an historic deficit-cutter while racking up an $18 trillion debt, more than created by all the previous presidents combined; for devaluing the very meaning of education by making it “free” for all, indeed for effectively federalizing community colleges; for ignoring all economic history by pretending that taxing “the rich,” which means the upper middle class, will somehow help the middle class; and by that colossal sin of omission: our commander-in-chief’s abject inability to mouth the words, “Islamic terrorism.”

And when the president gives his nationwide audience a meaningless pronouncement, as he did when proclaiming “The shadow of crisis has passed,” this having presided over the slowest economic recovery in history, we are left wondering: Whatever can he mean? I am enough of a student of history to distrust such reassurances. For all his rhetorical skills, President Obama is no Churchill, nor even a Cicero or Demosthenes. Tomorrow’s disasters can be aborning even when we’re blithely ignoring them. The greatest political persuaders, while spooning out hope, were at the same time stirring in realism. It’s called credibility.

Something surreal takes over the Capitol at SOTU time. Those of us in the congressional majority, the chief executive’s opposition, know that he knows that we know that most of his proposals he expects us to pass are accompanied by threats of his veto of our ideas. That is called stalemate, and it belies his calls for moving beyond business as usual – a mask for not having to perform the hard work of political compromise – and for a restoration of the bipartisanship that he himself is primarily responsible for trashing.

But SOTU has become institutionalized, with congressional receptions planned long in advance by various interests (my favorite is the one featuring the endless oysters), dinners scheduled, guests flown in and out, “rebuttals” planned well beforehand, media cams and mics sprouting in every corridor. All the habitual exercises surrounding it will make it more difficult to de-institutionalize. That would be the most healthy, salutary thing to do of all.

Remember: The Constitution requires only that the president “from time to time” report to Congress on “the state of the union.” That message does not have to be vocalized in the House chamber. A letter carried by the U.S. Mail from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other will satisfy the requirement. Most American presidents until modern times did it exactly that way.

Still, the president always should enjoy the opportunity to present his assessments, his policy proposals, and his artful gestures to an attentive Congress. He should on those occasions be expected to make his case, so long as he does so with an eye toward sound policy, not applause lines. We can tolerate the spectacle SOTU has become. But it is in danger of becoming a circus.