Permanently Cancel The State Of The Union Address
This morning, Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to the president proposing he delay the State of the Union address to Congress. Using the current shutdown as the excuse for her request, she wrote:
“Sadly, given the security concerns and unless government re-opens this week, I suggest that we work together to determine another suitable date after government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to the Congress on January 29th.”
I would like to up the ante on SOTU and request that it be permanently cancelled.
Prior to 1913, the president primarily submitted a written report to Congress. It was Woodrow Wilson who began the tradition of addressing Congress in person and using the occasion to promote his agenda. Until recently, most of the SOTU addresses were events that quickly faded from the headlines after the usual breathless build up by the media. Most addresses amount to a laundry list of achievements - at least what the president believes to be achievements - followed by a to do list with some lofty rhetoric thrown in as filler. As a political junkie, I have watched many addresses and can only remember one memorable line, Bill Clinton declaring "The era of big government is over".
Since president Obama, SOTU addresses have deteriorated from forgettable events to national embarrassments. The political division that plagues our country has overtaken basic courtesy and decorum. Heckling, justices falling asleep, the president rebuking other branches of government, stone faces, the political opposition sitting on its hands while members of the president’s party leap to standing ovations at the slightest pause in the speech. It is a spectacle not worthy of a great nation.
Even the tradition started by Ronald Reagan in 1982 to feature ‘ordinary American heroes’ has become highly politicized and the number of guests has grown to such an extent that no one remembers them. Last year, Trump not only continued the tradition but, as Chris Wallace noted, he put it on steroids. He seemed to have a guest for every political point he was trying to score. Moreover, many of the guests were minorities and it came across as very defensive on the part of the president in much of the same way someone says "I have a black, Jewish, etc. friend" to rebut charges of being a racist.
Finally, the media coverage leading up to the SOTU is another national embarrassment. It is stale, predictable. The same narratives and clichés are recycled from the previous year in an effort to drum up interest. Every SOTU address is cast as a pivotal moment in the presidency. A chance for the president to push the reset button and unify the country - as if one speech could do that in the current environment.
Let me digress for a moment. We live in a very polarized time in our politics much the same way it has happened in the past whenever there are very deep, opposing views about important issues. There was no way to unify a country where one side believed that slavery was morally abhorrent and the other saw it as the natural order of society. There was no way to unify a country where one side believed once a state joined the Union it could never leave while the other viewed the Union as a voluntary arrangement from which a state could walk away at any time. Today, two very different, irreconcilable visions for America's future are struggling for supremacy. One vision views America as a nation with borders and a distinct culture, language, identity and set of values that must be preserved for future generations. The other vision is to create a new America for future generations that does not have a dominant culture but it is mosaic of distinct cultures, languages, identities where borders are seen as barriers from the rest of humanity. No president, no speech can bridge the gap between the two visions. Polarization will only end after one vision triumphs over the other. Until that time, let’s spare our country the spectacle of two political parties are each other’s throats and return to the tradition of the submitting a written report to Congress.