Sunday, May 26, 2024

Opinion | If Biden wants some love, he should skip the State of the Union speech

Opinion | If Biden wants some love, he should skip the State of the Union speech


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At this time of year, through good times and bad, the White House hums with activity worthy of Santa’s workshop. Pray, what project keeps them so busy? Safer communities? Smoother roads? Healthier citizens? A more peaceful world?

No, alas. The early weeks of nearly every year are consumed by a frenzied effort to create another in a long series of dreary, tedious speeches known as the State of the Union address. (Washington insiders, in love with lingo, say the “SOTU” — an acronym almost as limp as the thing itself.)

The SOTU is an object lesson in the frailty of humans — even the most brilliant. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers had the vision to create, as young men, the world’s most durable constitutional republic. Yet even they could not foresee the awful spectacle that opportunistic politicians would make of what they intended to be an item of routine business.

Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 of the Constitution requires the president to “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

For more than a century, presidents dispatched this obligation by sending written reports, turgid with the details of government operations. On rare occasions, something quotable would slip in, most memorably when Abraham Lincoln closed his 1862 message to Congress with an appeal to end slavery: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

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But Woodrow Wilson, arguably the most consequential bad president in history (he applied Jim Crow to the federal government, for example), ruined this quiet exercise in 1913. Realizing that the occasional report to Congress could be turned into a political spectacle — a display of presidential grandeur rather than an exercise in subservience to the Article I authority of Congress — Wilson traveled to the Capitol to lecture the lawmakers.

Things have gone downhill ever since. Calvin Coolidge — called “Silent Cal,” but not silent enough — gave the first SOTU on radio, in 1923. Harry S. Truman trotted the vehicle onto TV in 1947. Lyndon B. Johnson decided he deserved prime time, and climbed the speaker’s rostrum in 1965 to demand that Congress sit, roll over and heel.

Ronald Reagan, the former actor, decided in 1982 that a leading man needs a supporting cast, and began the quickly exhausted tradition of salting the room with ordinary people who exemplify the big man’s wisdom. Somewhere in there, members of Congress began abasing themselves by leaping to their feet to applaud every few sentences — or, if they were in the opposition party, staring stonily as the cheers resounded across the aisle.

Richard M. Nixon may have been a crook, but at least he kept his SOTUs short, averaging a merciful 35 minutes and 26 seconds. Bill Clinton, in 1995, gassed on for nearly an hour and a half. The average Clinton speech was nearly an hour and a quarter — an annual national root canal — but not as long as the average speech by Donald Trump, who closed only after an hour and 20 minutes of squinting at the teleprompters as if he were reading a foreign language.

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Even at such Wagnerian length, presidents rarely find time to examine the actual condition of the United States. They are too busy reporting the excellence of their judgment, the purity of their intentions and the wisdom of the American people in placing such a paragon in the Oval Office. If you want a rough hangover, take a swig of the hard stuff each time President Biden shares another of his successes: ending the pandemic, quashing inflation, lowering gas prices, outsmarting China, healing our brokenness, coaching the Eagles, thinking up Buffalo wings.

The braggadocio will include a few change-ups, in which he forces the opposition to join the applause as further proof of presidential authority. Usually this is done by saluting the troops, but a hero firefighter or a sick child can also do the cynical trick.

When was the last time you heard someone say, “Gosh, that sure was a good State of the Union address”? Television viewers have tuned out by the tens of millions. Hackneyed, misleading, self-serving and dull, the annual address should be put out of its misery — and ours.

White House staffers toil so furiously because they believe the ritual is a boost to presidential ratings — and Biden certainly needs a boost. But if he really wants to win the public’s affection, he’ll hand a written report to the speaker, then look into the cameras and say:

“America, enjoy a night off.”



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