Yes! The State of the Union Address feels like a national ritual that is stuck on autopilot, lumbering along year by indistinguishable year, immune to reform or adaptation or updating, usually instantly forgotten and increasingly irrelevant… and yet unstoppable. Even the speech text is pretty much the same every year, regardless of the actual condition of the country.
National Journal’s Matt Vasilogambros points out how often the opening statement must include the cliché, “the State of our Union is strong!” (It’s become a catch phrase. The audience expects it like the bar crowd shouting “NORM!” on Cheers, or Kramer exploding into a room on “Seinfeld”.)
What’s worse, the actual state of the nation hasn’t been anywhere near strong lately, at least not since the crash of autumn 2008 and perhaps not since 9/11. The economy plods along at best, sputters and stumbles. Wages are stagnant. We had a complicated, headache-inducing health care system before Obamacare, and now it’s exponentially worse. Too many schools fail our kids. The debt grows. The world beyond our borders looks like chaos.
And yet every year, the president, and this president in particular, goes out and says, in effect, “We’re doing pretty darn good! And things are looking up! Hooray for us!” before heading to a laundry list of focus-grouped spending initiatives. The president’s party almost always wants to turn every sentence after “good evening” into an applause line, so you see lawmakers instinctively leaping out of their chairs for mundane statements. The whole thing looks like a giant self-congratulatory blowout celebration of how well our governing class has done their jobs, an opinion that is not shared by a majority of the electorate.
Yes, yes, we’re a nation of optimists and we want our leaders to be optimistic, blah blah blah. But the public is feeling pretty darn gloomy lately.
If lawmakers want us to listen to them again, they can start by leveling with us.