The annual ritual of the President's State of the Union Address took place last night. There are few settings more solemn in our casual culture. And it is certainly one of the best opportunities a President gets to address the nation about his priorities and vision.
The President did that last night. He did it better than some Sate of the Union speeches I can recall. Perhaps more to the point, he did it better than he has done in recent months. It is indeed one of the more perplexing characteristics of this particular president that, despite evident oratorical talent, he has seemed so ineffective at articulating a positive vision for his administration and, long-term, for America.
The State of the Union is ostensibly an address to the Congress - a report "on the state of the union" and recommendations for legislation. In format, it is the American version of the Throne speeches that punctuate the political calendar in parliamentary systems. Of course, from Jefferson through Taft, presidents eschewed the monarchical trappings of such an event and sent their message to the Congress in writing. Then Wilson restored the in-person, monarchical aspect of the event. Then Lyndon Johnson moved it from its traditional noon hour to evening, thus transforming it from an address to Congress to an address over the heads of Congress to the nation at large. Given the sad state of contemporary congressional governance, that may be a development any contemporary president must surely appreciate. That gerrymandered institution may make a good ceremonial backdrop for the State of the Union, but it has little to offer the nation but continued and growing disunion.
"The shadow of crisis has passed and the state of the union is strong." Such was the theme of the first part of the President's address. he rightly rejoiced - and invited us to rejoice - in the growing economy that is creating jobs at the fastest pace since the end of the last century. And there can be no doubt that the economy has definitely been getting stronger and stronger - especially in comparison with the much more static European economies. Of course, in today's polarized political climate, with an incorrigible opposition to whom facts do not matter much, such good news must seem to many as bad news - as reflected in the stony silence of the opposition party, led by their Speaker who seemed demonstrably miserable most of the evening.
I'm not sure how I feel about the new language of "middle class economics," but it was refreshing to hear the President take ownership of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act for so many formerly uninsured Americans, to hear him emphasize the need to make working families feel more secure, and to acknowledge that no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.
The persistent problem, however, is that, despite evident improvement in economic growth, the benefits of this improving economic situation have hardly been broadly shared in our society. When the President asked, "Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well," we all understand that it is the opposition party that is being tagged. The fact remains, however, that it has consistently been the case since the Reagan years that income inequality has grown and that the gap between the 1% and the have-not 99% has become an established fact of our tarnished social structure. That fact alone accounts, I fear, for a large part of the sadness and cynicism that continues to grown and to corrode what little is left of our once vibrant American civic culture.
It is against that background that I heard the latter part of the President's speech, which tried to recover the idealistic imagery of his initial appearance on the national scene. The President may sincerely believe in the possibility of overcoming the many divisions that continue to bedevil our society. But it is hard to see how that can happen, both because of the ideological polarization that the Congress so perfectly, if pointlessly, represents and because of the evident failure (economically and otherwise) of the American dream since the politically and morally calamitous 1980s.