Perennially when an incumbent president stands before Congress, with the Speaker of the House and the Vice President sitting like mannequins behind him, we hear the calls for the next president (or the sitting one) to cancel the whole affair.
This year, Fred Schwarz and Stephen Carter, deputy managing editor of National Review, and law professor at Yale, respectively, provided the ammunition. Either of these two have enough horsepower to out-debate me between bites at Burger King and still have fries left over after I concede the argument.
What’s tiresome is the hoopla about a speech that hardly anybody watches, and that, as a general rule, contains nothing new.
Any member of Congress (or ordinary citizen, for that matter) can get loads of detail on these things from the Internet, and if that isn’t enough, federal agencies send information about their doings to Congress all the time. As for recommending measures for passage, what president since at least FDR has ever been shy about doing that, at whenever time he felt was the right political moment?
Everything they said is true, evidenced by the fact that the Rams moving to L.A. trended more on Twitter than #SOTU. But allow me to disagree with these revered gentlemen. We need to have a State of the Union, or something like it, for the exact reasons they are against it.
Government, specifically being president in 2016 is about “optics.” How things look. Given that a large percentage of the politically-minded in America get their news from the Internet, daily–hourly in many cases, putting “something new” into the SOTU is an extremely high bar. But we need to have a rhythm in governing, like we have with holidays, New Years resolutions, going to the gym, and quitting our diet.
It’s not the pomp and tradition that are important, although these things honor the gravity of the entire federal government’s leaders coming together to hear the chief executive speak. It’s the fact that, one time a year, the president gets to speak from the bully pulpit with everyone in attendance, and Congress has to listen without having it chopped into sound bites and talking points by their staff.
The country–whoever chooses to listen–gets to hear a solid hour of the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military without having reporters dog questions and followups. It’s not the president speaking from the West Wing or the Oval Office, sitting alone with his aides and a camera–it’s a real, honest-to-God stump speech. Believe it or not, that’s important.
We talk about elections, and how you can’t win one by going on talk shows, making 30 second commercials, and buying “likes” on Facebook. You have to get out there and meet people. You have to connect and do more than give a 2 minute response in a televised debate. But with the president, we’re content to only hear a speech during a crisis.
Carter wrote that “Presidents do give great and important speeches to the nation. They just don’t do it when fulfilling their constitutional duty to from time to time give the Congress information on the state of the union.” That’s undoubtedly true, but it’s not the speech that’s important, it’s the rhythm.
The rhythm isn’t the most important thing however.
The SOTU is a civics lesson. There’s no other time when we can sit with an 8-year-old in front of the TV, and say “this is how we govern.” There it is, in full display, the Government of the United States. And our children, like us, can see it for the first time with wide-eyed wonder, knowing that they have the same potential to sit in any of those chairs, or to be the one behind the rostrum.
This is why we need to have a State of the Union speech and continue the tradition.