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Holding the president hostage for the night

January 27, 2014, at 6:30 PM

I'm tempted to say that the State of the Union address has become superfluous and ought to be retired and replaced, since it's become a presidential therapy session to reconnect with the interested public and a chance for the media to make fun of the person who has to give the rote response.

But even a White House as jaded about political rituals as this one recognizes that presidents don't have too many opportunities to go over the head of the opposition and the media and say something important to tens of millions of people at once.

President Obama has given many great speeches, generally in response to events or occasioned by his decision to speak about something that's important to him. His SOTUs are among his weakest. He has to give them. They have to be broad. They have to be "coherent" — must have a generally broad and inchoate theme, like action, progress, the future, community. They cannot simply be "laundry lists" of proposals, lest he be accused of small-boring us to death. The speech has to take account of an artificial period of time — the last 365 days — and then make promises about the next artificial period of time.

Constitutionally, a president is merely required to inform Congress from time to time of the progress of his agenda, something the president does virtually every day. Box checked. I'd love to see the president take to the well of the House and subject himself to questions from the opposition for an hour and a half each year. His speech can be entered on the record later. (His budget proposals, due next month, are far more important political documents that the public never reads or hears much about.)

As much as Republicans are carping today about the president's imperial power grab, which apparently consists of recess appointments and strongly worded missives, the importance attached to the State of the Union says as much about the evolution of the presidency as it does about the president in power. Our political culture does not really recognize three equal branches. Only one gets the opportunity to set an agenda. (The "response" doesn't count. When was the last response that actually moved anything?) The SOTU is important to America as a ritual reminder of the president's monarchic status, subordinated just that night to the power of the people, who invited him there, who keep him captive, just long enough for them to listen to him, shake his hand, and then send him off.

In the U.K., the only real equivalent is the Queen's speech opening parliament. She speaks the remarks that the prime minister's party has written for her. While she is at Westminster Abbey, a junior member of the PM's party is locked in a room at Buckingham Palace snacking on sandwiches. Just in case, you know, parliament kidnaps Elizabeth Regina.

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