State Of The Union: In Name Only

My latest article on my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live:

State Of The Union: In Name Only

Tonight, Barack Obama delivers his very first State Of The Union message to Congress. As is the custom with newly-inaugurated presidents, President Obama did speak to Congress last year, but that is not considered an official “State Of The Union.” The Constitution requires the President to make a report on how things are going “from time to time.”

Chart by Brad Rourke (click for full size)
Chart by Brad Rourke (click for full size)

As I thought about it, I found myself wishing that President Obama might take the tack Jimmy Carter took in in his last days in office in 1981 and mail it in — literally. It was a written report that year. In fact, while our first two presidents gave speeches, for a hundred years beginning with Thomas Jefferson the State Of The Union was a written report ranging from about 2,000 to about 24,000 words (Lincoln’s averaged 6,800 words). Woodrow Wilson ended that practice and ushered in the modern era of giving speeches.

I still think the first State Of The Union was probably the best. We don’t know how long it lasted, but we know that it was the shortest State Of The Union on record: George Washington’s first such address was just 1,089 words. I’ve written memos longer!

As I reflected on the fact that a speech would be inevitable, I then found myself hoping President Obama might take a page from Richard Nixon’s playbook and give a very short speech. Nixon gave a speech of just 28:30 in 1972. (The next year he sent a written report.)

But in the television era, we are by and large stuck with speeches that average about 48 minutes — long enough to take up an hour programming block, but short enough to allow time for pundit reactions. President Obama’s speech last year was right on the money in that respect, at 51:44.

For a political junkie, I have always felt guilty around State Of The Union time. I feel alienated from my fellow politics-watchers. Because I dread these speeches. It seems too short to say anything of value, too long to inspire, too worked-over to offer me anything new.

The state of the union is strong, I will hear. There will be shout-outs to “ordinary” people in the audience — a practice that has long since jumped the shark. There may even be a new initiative or two announced — perhaps a surprise.

But I know what the state of the union is, as does everyone from Skid Row to Main Street to Wall Street. Things are tough. There is little will from Washington to make the changes that we need. Political leaders are out of touch with the concerns of Americans.

A good friend told me earlier that he was despairing  that our political institutions could do anything anymore. This is the true state of the union: It sometimes feels a union in name only.

Yes, there are glimmers of hope. Each time I dare, though, my hopes are dashed. It’s not that my favored policies aren’t getting enacted, or that people I disagree with are in power. That’s just window dressing.

It’s that the structures aren’t working. We used to look to politics as the forum in which we solve the problems that arise when people live together and try to self-govern. Now we view politics as the problem and we try as best we can to live a life where we never encounter people unlike us.

Maybe I will hear something from this year’s address that lifts me.

But more likely, I will get over my funk. I will pull up my socks and get on with life, doing the work that must be done in our community irrespective of what messages drip down from the District of Columbia. That, after all, is the story of America.

In the end, when pushed up against the wall, we get to work. But just now, before the dawn, it’s quite dark.

6 thoughts on “State Of The Union: In Name Only”

  1. And, on the chart, I rounded times to nearest quarter-minute, and made into decimal. (So 45:13 would be 45.25.)

  2. Hmmm… no shout-outs to ordinary people in the audience (policy over anecdotes, yay!), 70+ minutes (with at least some substance), not any variations or versions of “the state of the union is strong” that I heard (as opposed to statements about the strength and “decency”—interesting word that got repeated—of the American people), and lots of recognition of the troubles those people face.

    I feel much of the same despair you mention affecting your friend. I am very downhearted at how casually people dismiss the possibility of our government doing much good. I definitely agree that the structures don’t feel like they are working.

    I am cautiously reassured at how many of these points the president touched on. Not to exaggerate the point, but it almost felt like a speech that was consciously designed not to be the kind that inspires the skepticism you express here.

    Any second thoughts?

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