The Sorry State of the State of the Union

Originally published in The Daily Caller, February 15, 2013 —

Article II, Section 3 of the United States Constitution mandates that the  president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State  of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall  judge necessary and expedient.” President Obama performed this constitutional  responsibility for the fourth time this week before a joint session of Congress,  assorted invited guests and a national television audience.

While Obama’s speech received generally positive reviews for style  and delivery from commentators on the left and right, it is difficult to see how  the speech, or any State of the Union speech delivered in the last several  decades, satisfies the purpose intended by the framers of the Constitution. The  president really said very little about the state of the union. There was no  mention that the national debt exceeds $16 trillion, or that this year’s deficit  is projected to exceed $900 billion — only broad and unsupported claims that,  whatever the nation’s fiscal problems, those problems will soon be remedied if  Congress follows the president’s lead.

In that regard, Obama did make some recommendations consistent with the  constitutional prescription, but beyond claiming that everything he proposed  would cost“not a dime,” his proposals were so devoid of specifics as to give Congress and  the people no basis, beyond partisan politics, for action or judgment.

Speaking of partisan politics, what better evidence that the State of the  Union has become a hopelessly partisan political event than the dreadful  practice of placing a member of the opposition party before a stationary camera  to deliver a response to a speech he has not heard? And how many more times must  we watch grown men  and women leap to their feet (over once per minute on average) in partisan unity  to applaud like kids at a junior high pep rally? And how many more human props  must we view on orchestrated display in the House galleries? Try to imagine  unemployed factory workers seated next to Eleanor Roosevelt while FDR laid out  his New Deal plans, or emancipated slaves next to Mary Todd Lincoln as Honest  Abe made the case for abolition and the preservation of the union.

Speaking of Lincoln, his second State of the Union address (delivered in  writing, as was the custom for most of our history until Woodrow Wilson)  provided a detailed, department-by-department accounting  of the government’s finances, reported on achievements and challenges in the  implementation of various laws and offered a frank assessment of the progress of  the war with the rebellious Southern states. Like most other 19th-century  presidents, Lincoln actually reported on the state of the union.

Perhaps it was inevitable that political theater would overtake  constitutional purpose once it became the norm to deliver a public address  before Congress — particularly after the advent of television. In fact, the most  substantive State of the Union address of the last century is probably Jimmy  Carter’s last in 1981, and it was the only one in recent decades to be delivered  in writing.

There is probably no turning back. The State of the Union address will never  again serve its constitutional purpose of providing Congress with an honest  assessment of the state of the union along with concrete recommendations for  addressing the nation’s problems and challenges. But maybe Congress could bring  a little decorum to the proceedings. Members of Congress could take their lead  from the Joint Chiefs and the Supreme Court justices who listen in respectful  silence. That way, the president would have the opportunity to deliver a  coherent and thoughtful speech, and members of Congress would not feel obliged  to demonstrate their partisanship through applause. After all, at this point,  bipartisanship is the only path forward.


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