Something’s Rotten in the State of Our Union
Many have debated the President’s remarks from last Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech.
E.D. Kain thought it was very successful, providing the American audience with a “rousing speech about the American dream, the American promise–the indispensable nation that is us…” Andrew Sullivan was disappointed because the speech didn’t lay out a clear vision for fundamental tax reform. Jason Kuznicki felt the President’s remarks reeked of fascism. And Tod Kelly argued that commentators were overlooking the perceptions and feelings of the audience that Obama’s rhetoric was meant to address.
While I concur, to a degree, with all of these reactions, as well as many others, my own is one of doomed pessimism and cynical loathing. The State of the Union is a speech meant to have the President convey to Congress, “information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
The Constitution is becoming, with each passing day, an ever more ironic document as Americans urge elected officials to follow it more closely, even as they themselves continue to support policies and practices which are antithetical to it.
Of course, the thing most responsible for the document’s growing irrelevance, even as it remains the “law of the land,” is the continued creation of new technology.
It is technology that has made the tracking capability of GPS prove a problem when it comes to our traditional understanding of the boundaries of search and seizure and individual privacy.
It is technology that has made extra-judicial war easier and more likely. Not only do manufacturers of military technology have a vested interest in encouraging the unending growth in America’s military capacity, but the structure of our forces and the way in which they can be deployed means the U.S. can wage war against Libya without “boots” ever touching the ground. It also means missiles can be fired at potential targets, from “enemy combatants” to U.S. citizens, by someone far away from that conflict holding nothing but a pseudo-Xbox controller.
And it is largely technology that is responsible for our current political discourse. It was the prevalence of radio and television that first brought the State of the Union to voters’ ears. And as a result of the proliferation of the visual medium since then, it is now the American public, rather than Congress, that are the real audience for the President’s rhetoric.
The President’s remarks used to be delivered to Congress in writing. Then with Woodrow Wilson, the tradition changed to making a speech before a joint session. And now, in the early 21st century, the speech is an occasion for horse-race analysis by a few and a national pep rally for the rest.
Why is it a bad thing that the President’s remarks have been liberated from paper, brought to sound and sight by new technology, and broadcast to everyone rather than just the few hundred citizens “we the people” elect to do “the people’s business?”
It’s bad because the same pseudo-openness that makes Congress a series of derivative monologues and one-act performances makes the SOTU an annual moment for proclaiming to one another, and the world, just how great we are. American Exceptionalism oozes from the dull applause and contemptuous campaigning. And why not, because as David Frum explains,
“Flags, Seal Team 6, we got each other’s backs … large parts of the writing seem to have come from the kind of movies satirized by Team America. And guess what? People will like it. I could feel those focus group dials whirring faster and faster as the speech wore on.”
I don’t care much for, or about, Obama’s domestic agenda, with its attachment to the neoliberal status quo and bizarre, even contradictory accommodation of populist protectionism (in the things he says at least). He is also the President, so any amount of time he spends proposing patchwork fixes for the economy, something which for better or worse, is the job of his Democratic counterparts in Congress, I consider to be a waste. His focus should be on managing his branch of government, the executive, as well as negotiating with other countries, representing his own, and doing his best to NOT take it to war.
And perhaps I’m just naïve to believe that, if the television cameras were taken away, the President’s remarks would be more focused on the business at hand, and specifically on that business for which he is responsible and actually involved with. Am I alone in thinking that would be preferable? That with “globalization,” whatever it means, and whatever it entails, being the REAL issue of our time, the President should focus on discussing how not the nation, but rather its people, can succeed in a century where the relationships between countries are more important than the countries themselves?
Instead, what we get from the President is a rhetorical hand job our union is strong, even while the median income continues to go down, employment continues to remain high (especially for those who are not white, not old, and don’t have a college education), and while the “state” of our infrastructure is a C- (is it still that high?), the “state” of our education is second-rate, and the “state” of our national finance is one set to be consumed by unaffordable health care costs and unmanageable retirement benefits before the new “lost” generation even reaches mid-life.
That isn’t what transparency is about. That’s not what honest conversations are about. And it’s not what the Presidency is suppose to be about. But in the age of late-showbiz and never-ending war, who cares if a Team America President isn’t the one we need, as long as he’s the one we all want. The state of our union itself might be strong, but the state of its people and its institutions is certainly not. More on that, however, in a follow-up post.
Image via the Christian Science Monitor