Something’s Rotten in the State of Our Union

Something’s Rotten in the State of Our Union

Many have debated the President’s remarks from last Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech. 

E.D. Kain thought it was very successful, providing the American audience with a “rousing speech about the American dream, the American promise–the indispensable nation that is us…”  Andrew Sullivan was disappointed because the speech didn’t lay out a clear vision for fundamental tax reform.  Jason Kuznicki felt the President’s remarks reeked of fascism.  And Tod Kelly argued that commentators were overlooking the perceptions and feelings of the audience that Obama’s rhetoric was meant to address.

While I concur, to a degree, with all of these reactions, as well as many others, my own is one of doomed pessimism and cynical loathing.  The State of the Union is a speech meant to have the President convey to Congress, “information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

The Constitution is becoming, with each passing day, an ever more ironic document as Americans urge elected officials to follow it more closely, even as they themselves continue to support policies and practices which are antithetical to it.

Of course, the thing most responsible for the document’s growing irrelevance, even as it remains the “law of the land,” is the continued creation of new technology. 

It is technology that has made the tracking capability of GPS prove a problem when it comes to our traditional understanding of the boundaries of search and seizure and individual privacy.

It is technology that has made extra-judicial war easier and more likely.  Not only do manufacturers of military technology have a vested interest in encouraging the unending growth in America’s military capacity, but the structure of our forces and the way in which they can be deployed means the U.S. can wage war against Libya without “boots” ever touching the ground.  It also means missiles can be fired at potential targets, from “enemy combatants” to U.S. citizens, by someone far away from that conflict holding nothing but a pseudo-Xbox controller.

And it is largely technology that is responsible for our current political discourse.  It was the prevalence of radio and television that first brought the State of the Union to voters’ ears.  And as a result of the proliferation of the visual medium since then, it is now the American public, rather than Congress, that are the real audience for the President’s rhetoric.

The President’s remarks used to be delivered to Congress in writing.  Then with Woodrow Wilson, the tradition changed to making a speech before a joint session.  And now, in the early 21st century, the speech is an occasion for horse-race analysis by a few and a national pep rally for the rest.

Why is it a bad thing that the President’s remarks have been liberated from paper, brought to sound and sight by new technology, and broadcast to everyone rather than just the few hundred citizens “we the people” elect to do “the people’s business?” 

It’s bad because the same pseudo-openness that makes Congress a series of derivative monologues and one-act performances makes the SOTU an annual moment for proclaiming to one another, and the world, just how great we are.  American Exceptionalism oozes from the dull applause and contemptuous campaigning.  And why not, because as David Frum explains,

“Flags, Seal Team 6, we got each other’s backs … large parts of the writing seem to have come from the kind of movies satirized by Team America. And guess what? People will like it. I could feel those focus group dials whirring faster and faster as the speech wore on.”

I don’t care much for, or about, Obama’s domestic agenda, with its attachment to the neoliberal status quo and bizarre, even contradictory accommodation of populist protectionism (in the things he says at least).  He is also the President, so any amount of time he spends proposing patchwork fixes for the economy, something which for better or worse, is the job of his Democratic counterparts in Congress, I consider to be a waste.  His focus should be on managing his branch of government, the executive, as well as negotiating with other countries, representing his own, and doing his best to NOT take it to war.

And perhaps I’m just naïve to believe that, if the television cameras were taken away, the President’s remarks would be more focused on the business at hand, and specifically on that business for which he is responsible and actually involved with.  Am I alone in thinking that would be preferable?  That with “globalization,” whatever it means, and whatever it entails, being the REAL issue of our time, the President should focus on discussing how not the nation, but rather its people, can succeed in a century where the relationships between countries are more important than the countries themselves?

Instead, what we get from the President is a rhetorical hand job our union is strong, even while the median income continues to go down, employment continues to remain high (especially for those who are not white, not old, and don’t have a college education), and while the “state” of our infrastructure is a C- (is it still that high?), the “state” of our education is second-rate, and the “state” of our national finance is one set to be consumed by unaffordable health care costs and unmanageable retirement benefits before the new “lost” generation even reaches mid-life.

That isn’t what transparency is about.  That’s not what honest conversations are about.  And it’s not what the Presidency is suppose to be about.  But in the age of late-showbiz and never-ending war, who cares if a Team America President isn’t the one we need, as long as he’s the one we all want.  The state of our union itself might be strong, but the state of its people and its institutions is certainly not.  More on that, however, in a follow-up post.

Image via the Christian Science Monitor

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

12 thoughts on “Something’s Rotten in the State of Our Union

  1. The Constitution is becoming, with each passing day, an ever more ironic document as Americans urge elected officials to follow it more closely, even as they themselves continue to support policies and practices which are antithetical to it.

    An ironic document. I like that expression.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • “Congress” “shall” “make” “no” “law” “respecting” “an” “establishment” “of” “religion,” “or” “prohibiting” “the” “free” “exercise” “thereof;” “or” “abridging” “the” “freedom” “of” “speech,” “or” “of” “the” “press;” “or” “the” “right” “of” “the” “people” “peaceably” “to” “assemble,” “and” “to” “petition” “the” “Government” “for” “a” “redress” “of” “grievances”.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  2. Good lord, that was depressing, Ethan.  But I agree with you wholeheartedly.  Thank you for writing this.  I’d wanted to write something in this vein, but couldn’t organize my feelings and thoughts about it.  You said all I would have said and more.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. That with “globalization,” whatever it means, and whatever it entails, being the REAL issue of our time, the President should focus on discussing how not the nation, but rather its people, can succeed in a century where the relationships between countries are more important than the countries themselves?

    But this shouldn’t involve proposing economic policies to Congress?

      Quote  Link

    Report

  4. And perhaps I’m just naïve to believe that, if the television cameras were taken away, the President’s remarks would be more focused on the business at hand, and specifically on that business for which he is responsible and actually involved with.  Am I alone in thinking that would be preferable?  That with “globalization,” whatever it means, and whatever it entails, being the REAL issue of our time, the President should focus on discussing how not the nation, but rather its people, can succeed in a century where the relationships between countries are more important than the countries themselves?

    I don’t think you’re naive to believe this, and I have some observations that back it up.  I’ve had the opportunity to observe New Zealand’s politicians when they are at Question Time (a public, partisan and fairly silly activity) and when they are in Select Committee (no cameras, and no grandstanding either, MPs of every party work in a very professional and cooperative manner).

    The trouble with cameras is that people want to perform for them.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • The trouble with cameras is that people want to perform for them.

      And the trouble with this President is that he never misses the opportunity to oblige.

      Agree completely with the OP that the STFU SOTU media event is about as shallow as the applause it generates.  More akin to an outdated ritual from a tired monarchy than something intended to actually convey meaning or depth.

      Let’s not forget that when the incumbent is up for reelection, SOTU becomes as much of an unofficial campaign kickoff as an official function.  As he’s running unopposed within his own party and the rival party hopefuls are clawing each other’s eyes out on national TV at least once a week, it does make for a striking contrast in style if not substance.

       

       

       

        Quote  Link

      Report

  5. I was reading recently where an appellate court had thrown out a conviction due to a proper warrant not being issued when a law enforcement officer attached a GPS device to a suspect’s vehicle.
    On the other hand, I was also reading about how a fellow involved in some fraud scheme was denied possible evidence on discovery relating to the mechanism the government used to track his laptop.

    More disturbing than that is how electronic devices have been held to come under the container rule; that to search through your cell phone to see who you called, or read through your text messages, etc. is perfectly legal if stopped for some other reason, as the cell phone is itself a “container.”
    Ditto for your laptop or tablet.
    Your mp3 player for that matter.

    It seems to go against the “right… to be secure in their persons,… papers, and effects.”

    That one has been on the decline for a long time.
    Still doesn’t make it not-wrong.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  6. Ethan, are you thinking that there was ever a time in which the President and Congress did NOT perform for an audience?

    That there was ever a time when politicians behaved soberly and without mendacious and corrupt motives?

      Quote  Link

    Report

  7. It seems a little fruitless to blame the president for trying to set out some sort of statement of priorities and endeavors for the coming year.  I find it utterly bizarre to try and read “fascism” into a reference to the military couched in these terms:

    “They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together”

    This is, yet another, slightly desperate appeal for Americans to work together, rather than turning every issue into a partisan cage match.  There’s no blood and soil, no man on horseback, no exultation of an identity founded on some sort of alleged genetic superiority.  This simply is not about fascism. It’s an analogy about how people of differing views and skills can work together for a common goal.  If anything, it’s the part of the speech that most directly relates to the state of the union and attempts to make said union somewhat more unified.

    “His focus should be on managing his branch of government, the executive, as well as negotiating with other countries, representing his own, and doing his best to NOT take it to war.”

    Since when has the executive been denied the right to advocate an economic and social agenda? The executive branch is not a foreign office with a big house on Pennsylvania Avenue thrown in for free.   Yes, Congress and Senate make the decisions about what gets enacted and what does not, but that doesn’t mean that the president has no right of input.  Why should the president not address issues that are obviously germane to the state of the union?

    with “globalization,” whatever it means, and whatever it entails, being the REAL issue of our time, the President should focus on discussing how not the nation, but rather its people, can succeed in a century where the relationships between countries are more important than the countries themselves?”

    It’s hard to see how one achieves any meaningful separation between nation and people in a speech explicitly designed to focus on the state of the union i.e. the nation constituted from those same people.  And you assume much too rapidly that globalization makes nations irrelevant. This may be the vision of the elites who push globalization, but it’s not as yet obviously a majority vision in the USA, or, for that matter in any nation on this earth.

    If you don’t like Obama’s agenda, fine and good, but you seem to spend much more time agonizing over the discontents of the modern, technological world than you do actually analyzing the content of the speech itself. As for the rhetorical handjob – well, what do you expect in an age when the media are both lazy and ignorant, when they pick up only on applause lines, and when the lazy and ignorant American people make it clear that they want good news and feel-good slogans?  We ask the politicians to lie to us all the time – and woe betide the poor fool who fails to do our bidding.  All this in an election year when the GOP are making it clear that any lie will do if it gets them into power. Again.  I don’t think you can reasonably blame a president who is stuck in Romulus’ shit-heap for not speaking as if he were in Plato’s Republic.

     

     

     

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *