Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Waiting for the State of the Union

The President's annual address to Congress on "the state of the Union" is prescribed in the Constitution. Or, rather, the message itself is. As is well known, Thomas Jefferson abandoned his Federalist predecessors' practice of addressing Congress in person, perceiving it to be too monarchical. And for 112 years no President ever again addressed Congress in person, until the Anglophile Woodrow Wilson resumed custom in 1913. 

Obviously modeled on a European monarch's "Speech from the Throne," the occasion is the closest we come to such regal ceremonial. The President comes to the House Chamber, formally escorted as Head of State. From the House Doorkeeper's traditional cry, Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States, to the President's formulaic introduction by the Speaker, the President embodies the sovereignty of the nation, and is received accordingly. It is and rightly should be an opportunity for some serious, unifying, patriotic uplift 

Unifying regal ritual on this very formal occasion notwithstanding, the event is also a divisively partisan one - reflected not just in the somewhat unbecoming custom of a televised partisan response by the opposite party, but even more dramatically in the partisan applause patterns that periodically punctuate the speech. It is, after all, the President's presentation of his program. Once upon a time, the expectation was that the Congress would debate and act upon the President's proposals - accepting, rejecting, compromising as appropriate. Nowadays, however, the speech is really addressed to the TV audience (in other words, to the voters). In the absence of the deliberation and debate that was originally supposed to characterize the legislative branch, both sides seem instead to concentrate on scoring points prior to the next election.

My guess is that the President will focus heavily on the growing inequality and mobility gap in our society, a situation in which even a the economy is improving and growing ordinary, working people continue to fall behind. I presume he will also highlight how health insurance reform (the Affordable Care Act) is helping address an important dimension of this crisis. I'm sure he'll call for a higher minimum wage and for comprehensive immigration reform. Hopefully, he can make the necessary connections to mobilize a nation to recover the communitarian character that has been in the process of consistently being eroded since 1980. 

But, now, the President has arrived. So let's see what he has to say. And then think more about it tomorrow.

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