Quite apart from the fact that Obama had it wrong at every level, and that he wasn’t dealing with the questions of principle, this point about the State of the Union stands out for me: He is engaging in political theater outside a parliamentary or political setting, in which the other side can come back at him by getting up to rebut his arguments, or as in Britain, jeering across the aisle and shout out that he’s lying or “there he goes again!” This is a rare format in which a political leader is given a moment in which he is treated regally — with all of the trappings of royalty and admiration — and just as in the case of royalty, it becomes a mark of disrespect to shout out (as Joe Wilson did last year) or even to show disdain on one’s face. We’ve been reminded recently that this format was brought into being by Woodrow Wilson, and it deserves to be abandoned. But what incumbent would agree any longer to abandon it?
Still, at least, it might be countered subtly: Let the justices pass up this invitation to attend (as Scalia and Thomas have already, and as I suspect, Alito will in the future), or let a president know that members of the Supreme Court will react when he is committing howlers. If he doesn’t like that they’re reacting, he should be generous in letting them come to the podium and make an evening of debate/discussion. In fact, that could be a possible path to ending it: If the Republicans regain control of Congress, with a Democratic president, they could insist on a change in format. If the president really wants to enter their arena, he should come prepared to engage in a debate or discussion with members of the opposition, who happen to be informed on the issues — and good on their feet.