To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I'm not sure why we're there. Chief Justice John Roberts, 2010
George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address, a practice Jefferson stopped and Woodrow Wilson resumed in 1913. I never miss this annual ritual. While some presidents are better orators than others, there is a distinct sameness to it. That includes a good bit of transparent staging with First Lady guests used as rhetorical or emotional props. Most presidents like to balance touting accomplishments with setting legislative agendas and seeking to inspire. Some are more successful than others, but regardless of party only at the margin.
Pundits and, to borrow from Frank Rich, bloviators are quick to assess these speeches with largely predictable pontification. In addition to “performance reviews” their comments generally reflect conventional wisdom about a president’s current standing. Often presidents are measured against how well they deliver on what the individual pundit thinks should have been said. When too many legislative objectives are put forward (Clinton’s long laundry lists), they complain about that. When relatively few specifics are given, the speech is judged too general, lacking substance. Presidents just can’t seem to win.
Barack Obama is one of our best presidential orators, but pundits invariably follow his speeches expressing disappointment — a man with his skills should have done better. I don’t seem to recall Ronald Reagan — the great communicator — being subjected to similar criticism. It’s hard to overlook that Obama is often judged against a higher standard just because of who he is. You know, a guy representing his people should do better, outperform at every occasion. But let’s no dwell on that here.
You may not agree, but let me go out on a limb here and say that within their particular oratorical capacity, all the presidents I’ve listened to since Eisenhower do relatively as well with the State of the Union. The opposition response (started in 1966) has always been a mixed bag including some awkward bombs (Jindal’s flat speech in 2009 and Rubio’s water break in 2013), but the headliners tend to perform well, sometimes at their best. So what interests me more is not so much the president but his audience.
I don’t often agree with John Roberts, but his 2010 characterization of the State of the Union as “a political pep rally” is spot on. According to Article 2, Section 3 of the Constitution, 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…” Over the years, this “information of the state of the union” has evolved into mostly political theater. It is not only “a political pep rally”, but also a highly partisan one that can get silly, even ugly.
To paraphrase the poetic words of Ecclesiastes 3, there is:
A time for rising and a time for sitting
A time to applaud and a time to refrain from applauding
A time to cheer and a time to jeer.
Those times during the State of the Union are dictated by what a president says, but more so by the political divide. The rote and predictable gymnastics of rising and sitting often borders on the comical. Just keep your eye on the awkward Vice President and Speaker who don’t quite know when to tag along. Rising, normally reserved for recognizing the extraordinary, loses any meaning with indiscriminate repetition. When Obama makes a point, Republicans in the chamber tend not only to refrain from applauding; they seem to be sitting on their hands. George W. Bush experienced the same thing, but in reverse. Audible jeering is rare, but even in its implied state, makes for a pretty ugly scene.
Partisan reactions to presidential speeches have always been there, but the bitter nature of partisanship since the GOP was taken over by fringe rightists has heightened the divide, made it more consistent and raw. So the yeas and nays are more numerous, vocal and predictable than ever before. Nonetheless, there are moments of unity when the entire chamber erupts in applause and in demonstrative standing. Togetherness abounds when presidents evoke American Exceptionalism. That may be a straightforward, “America is the greatest” or a patriotic bow to our military — thank you for your sacrifice. And, it happened when Obama referred to our Olympic team bringing home the gold. That evoked not only standing cheers but also barnyard chants of USA, USA, USA.
Indeed, the one thing that seems to unite us is this claim of exceptionalism. It is routinely taken as fact, never questioned or scrutinized. I have great pride in the land of my birth, in its enduring Constitution and in its people. We certainly have a lot going for us in comparison with other nations, perhaps even more than most. But to claim “we’re the greatest” or that “we’re exceptional” is so boastful, so lacking in humility, that at the very least we should feel obliged to regularly put it to test. I’m not talking here about proving the claim to others, but soberly looking in the mirror and asking if we can substantiate the words to ourselves.
For many Americans, regardless of party, any suggestion that we should question our exceptionalism constitutes blasphemy. That’s terribly sad. In fact, I would submit that it could ultimately be suicidal. Whenever I hear a politician make that “we’re the greatest” claim, it strikes me that she/he is mouthing a platitude and that we’re essentially talking to ourselves. It’s bad enough when we tell ourselves a story, but really dangerous when we believe our own myth. How can we expect to “perfect our union” if we aren’t honest with ourselves about how and where it falls short, where it isn’t exceptional?
There have been great empires throughout human history but none have shown themselves to be invulnerable. Empire is one of those loaded terms. The British relished it; we have always eschewed it. We argue that empire neither reflects our reality or intentions. Let’s not get distracted by semantics. Empire or not, we have been a or the dominant world power for some time.
There are many reasons why dominant powers lose their grip, but a sure sign of decline is when an empire nation’s rhetoric and self-proclaimed greatness no longer matches reality. In the twentieth century, Britain touted its global empire long beyond the time when the title had largely morphed into hollow symbolism. The Soviets proclaimed its superpower parity, while imploding from within and losing their grip on subservient Satellites. Both were talking to themselves, telling a story that some of their people still believed or wanted to believe. The story itself was a killer.
Are we doing the same thing? Are we really exceptional, the greatest country on the face of the earth? You be the judge, but I’d suggest that if we want to keep on saying those things we had better address the shortfalls that might one day metastasize into self-inflicted mortal flaws. Sure we have great universities, but our education system is falling behind and in some respects never matched up to the best around the globe. We have great medicine including leading edge discovery, but our healthcare system fails to touch all and is delivered at an astronomical cost. We have no better and sometimes worse outcomes than countries that spend far less. Our government has become so politicized that it is dysfunctional, not a banana republic or an Italy yet but seemingly heading in that direction. Economic inequality is growing exponentially headed I fear to a tipping point that could produce the kind of angry disruptions that have undone earlier empires. We boast democracy and being the greatest when most citizens feel they are losing their grip on their own future and the nation’s direction. I could go on, but you get the point.
Are we the greatest, the exceptional, nation? In my lifetime, despite having become the world’s solo superpower, I think less so. As the past has shown, dominance tends to be fleeting. Fleeting it will always be, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be extended, can’t be renewed. I believe it can and should, but first we have to stop talking to ourselves, boasting to ourselves and admit to what’s broken and desperately needs to be fixed. What time is it? It’s time to consider the real state of our union.