The State of the Union is a national embarrassment

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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Today is the day.  President Obama will deliver his fifth state of the union address to Congress, assembled dignitaries, a few carefully chosen guests, and the American people.  It should be, and could be, an occasion of civic pride for all Americans – an opportunity to remind ourselves and the world that the democratic republic we have sustained for two and a quarter centuries remains a model for freedom lovers everywhere.

Sadly, we can rest assured that the occasion will be no such thing. Rather, it will be an embarrassing display of rank partisanship in its most juvenile form. The president will deliver a laundry list of what his pollsters indicate people want to hear, while grown men and women rise to their feet, or sit on their hands, depending on their partisan persuasion – except when sitting on their hands would be deemed unpatriotic or mean-spirited, in which case all will rise together as if they really do believe they have been elected, along with the president, to serve the common good. Talking heads will then provide instant analysis as if something worthy of analysis was actually said.

George Will is right to label the State of the Union an “undignified … unedifying … unnecessary [and] vulgar … circus.” Maureen Dowd or some other pundit on the left would say the same if a Republican president were the speaker. But this is not a partisan or ideological matter. Surely we must all be united in our embarrassment.

The speech will be filled with carefully planned applause lines instantly recognized by the president’s partisans as signals to rise like robots in support, without regard for what is actually said. If, as reported, the speech calls for even more executive action to do what Congress has declined to do, watch for such robotic partisanship as democrats rise in enthusiastic support of the president’s announced intention to circumvent their constitutional powers – though they would have sat on their hands and even scowled if George W. Bush had announced plans to circumvent the elected representatives of the people.

There was a time when Republicans and Democrats would unite in defense of the constitutional powers of the legislative branch. But today, party seems always to take precedence over principle, even when the principle is preserving one’s own power. Montesquieu’s and Madison’s separation of powers fails when those holding power willingly give way to party and faction.

But such fundamental matters will be on no one’s mind this evening. The task for every one in attendance, except the military brass and the justices of the Supreme Court, will be to stay sufficiently attentive to know when it is time to rise or stay seated. Fortunately that challenge is lessened by the convenient geographical separation of the parties in the House chamber. Just rise or sit when the guy next to you does.

At this late date there’s no avoiding the pending embarrassment. But here’s a modest proposal for Obama State of the Union VI. Both parties agree to follow the lead of the Supreme Court and sit on their hands until the end. Then, like well brought-up adults, they would show their appreciation with polite, even enthusiastic, applause at the end. If the president is made aware of the agreement before he writes his speech, he might even eliminate the applause lines and write a speech worthy of the president of our great republic.

Short of such bipartisan agreement to bring a modicum of propriety to this sad display, Republicans could do their bit by abandoning the response to the State of the Union speech. It serves only to underscore that the whole affair has become an exercise in partisan politics, not to mention to embarrass the hapless politico chosen to speak without an audience or even a convenient bottle of water.

Or a president inclined to do whatever he wants could solve the problem by reverting to the original practice of delivering his observations on the state of the union in writing. But he would have to think there is a problem, which is unlikely if that president’s solution to every challenge is another applause line-filled speech.