The "State of The Union" Winner Announced: The Media!
Disclaimer: This is not a post about tonight's address or, indeed, about ANY State of the Union (SOTU) address in particular. Rather, I just want to lay out a few general thoughts and observations about the SOTU as an institution*. It describes the blueprint to EVERY SOTU. Make sure you read this again next year!
For the last several years, I've felt more and more with each passing SOTU that there really just isn't a point to them at all anymore. The SOTU requirement was developed by the Founders as a means of requiring the President to provide an annual update to Congress on the health of the new nation--literally the state of the Union. In those days--before Google, think tanks, broad access to education, publicly available government-funded studies, and so on--the President truly did have a decisive information edge over Congress. It was quite literally necessary for the President to keep Congress informed.
Today, however, that disparity has largely evaporated. The President maintains significantly better information only in one area: classified information. Since the SOTU is not a classified address, that advantage seems to be mostly irrelevant for our purposes here.
Because of this reality, it isn't wholly surprising that the SOTU has only nominally to do with the actual state of the Union. Year after year, what we get is a mostly partisan touting of a President's perceived achievements, thinly veiled attacks against the opposing party, and grand promises for new plans to fix all that ails us. In short, the SOTU really is nothing more than a routine campaign speech that takes place on a grand stage.
Every SOTU proceeds along a very predictable itinerary. The President will enter to much applause, perhaps signing a few autographs on his way to the lectern. He'll do this at just the right time, as dictated by the schedules of the networks airing his speech. He'll then stand at the podium and soak up more applause until, on cue, the clapping dies away. Then he'll talk for a few minutes about how outstanding his leadership and policies are. Every 30 seconds, he'll be interrupted by the obligatory applause. This will go on for several minutes. A few members of the other party will fail to attend at all in a bid to grab a few headlines for themselves. Those who do attend will theatrically stay seated, withhold applause, and don appropriately grave expressions. This is partisanship at its most pronounced.
After around 10 minutes, dignified political theatrics dictate that it is now appropriate to allow the President to speak with fewer interruptions. He will take this opportunity to recognize distinguished guests in the audience. Invariably, these guests will have incredible stories and will have done heroic deeds. Equally invariably, however, these guests will be exploited on national television for political purposes--pawns in a political game who seemingly fail to realize that they were not invited due to gratitude or to admiration but due to their stories' ability to score quick political points for the President. He seems, it is hoped, nicer and warmer for taking a moment to recognize these strategically-invited individuals. *Personally, I find it to be shameful. *
After this prerequisite of the modern SOTU has been completed, he'll move on to the meat of his speech. This is mostly a vanilla, dumbed-down mixture of skewed facts, actual facts, opinions, and musings. He'll portray his record accurately at times and inaccurately at other times. He'll take a few shots at the other side. He'll lay out a grand vision for the future, parts of which even the White House itself promptly moves to ignore. Speechwriters will feverishly take notes for next year's address. After all, one year later, less than 20% of the President's current SOTU agenda will have been implemented, and speechwriters will need to deftly explain how 20% actually is 90% and how the other 10% was a casualty of the other political party's obstructionism. Everyone is at fault except the President, of course. (Never mind the fact that, in most cases, the President never bothered to submit his SOTU policies to Congress at all.)
When it's finally all over, the President, having actually accomplished nothing at all, will depart to pomp and fanfare (dutiful scowls from the other party notwithstanding). America will then settle in to listen to someone whom the other party hopes is a rising star deliver an equally partisan rebuttal. He or she frequently will be outside Washington, D.C. (The other party isn't an establishment Beltway type, you know.) This person will go on to deliver the evening's second campaign speech, which he or she hopes will launch his or her political career to new heights.
Politicians will wink and nod at each other. Then they'll pat each other on the back if they have time to do so after they've finished patting themselves on the back. They must hurry though because they have to scramble to urgent talking-head engagements with those organizations for whom this is really done: News Outlets.
The SOTU matters to news outlets more than it matters to anyone else for one simple reason: Money.
The SOTU is big business for them. It must be hyped ahead of time. It must be covered with real-time commentary throughout. Shots of the guests must be perfect. Afterwards, self-proclaimed-expert commentary must be brought to bear to analyze a speech that we are told is significant but that actually bears no significance at all to anything other than media ratings.
Tomorrow Americans will wake up. Yes, the sun will rise just as it always has. Policies will remain as they were the day before. Congress will go back to its same dysfunction. The President will go on with his schedule, such as it may be. The SOTU won't have mattered, won't have informed anyone, won't have charted a truly new path, and won't be relevant in any way. The media outlets will continue to talk about it in an attempt to get a little more ratings mileage out of it. They'll milk it for all it's worth plus a bit more, but eventually that will fade away too. Then we'll all completely forget that it ever even happened--until we do this whole charade again next year.
My conclusion: The SOTU is much ado about nothing...absolutely nothing. It has absolutely no point or place in the 21st Century and should simply be abolished.
*Disclaimer reiteration: This post does NOT have anything to do with any one SOTU address in particular. It applies to tonight's address, to all of Obama's addresses, to Bush's addresses, and so on. There's no need to comment bash the other side. That happens enough in the SOTU addresses themselves. This is merely my own perspective on the SOTU address as an institution--nothing more and nothing less. The substance of the speech, to be blunt, doesn't matter and isn't the point. They're all equally empty, partisan, and pointless. Thus, why haggle over the content?
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