On Tuesday night, Barack Obama gives his final State of the Union address to Congress, marking the beginning of the final year of his presidency. But besides watching the president try to stave off the end of his relevancy, is there really any reason to watch it?
Media outlets have reported that the president plans to use the dais as a means to not just frame his own accomplishments and set the agenda for the next year, but to attempt to frame the next election despite the fact that Obama won't be on the ticket any longer.
"Last year, he spoke to Congress," said his communications director Jennifer Psaki, The New York Times reported. "This year, he'll be speaking more to the American public." This is hardly remarkable. All SOTU addresses do this to some extent — no president believes he sets the agenda for Congress just because of one speech, or at least not after the first year or two, anyway. That's what makes them droning, laundry-list campaign speeches of grand spectacle, but very little import.
Of course, the State of the Union as snoozefest didn't start with President Obama. (It started with Woodrow Wilson.) There have been very few if any SOTU speeches in living memory that even rise to the level of memorable, let alone stirring or inspirational. The post-9/11 SOTU from George W. Bush might be one, but otherwise both Republicans and Democrats have offered entirely forgettable and tedious rehashes of administration talking points, punctuated repeatedly by pointless applause from the president's party. It has become a grotesque parody of monarchical excess, only less meaningful in either tone or substance.
Congress could put an end to it, and perhaps it's a wonder that they haven't tried. The legislative branch's prestige suffers in comparison when they extol the executive as some sort of popularly elected caesar, complete with cheers and adulatory optics for the cameras and voters back home. It's doubly ironic, because the founders created this constitutional requirement to remind presidents that they were answerable to Congress to account for their governance on a regular basis, and not the other way around. Perhaps that's why presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Teddy Roosevelt preferred to just send a report each year.
If Congress won't eliminate the spectacle, then perhaps they should consider an alternative that would at least restore the intent of Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution. Instead of a speech, Congress should invite the president to a debate covering the State of the Union, and whatever agenda the president sees fit to champion at it.
In the past week, we have seen how well this might work. President Obama and CNN partnered on a town hall event on the subject of gun rights and gun control. Most expected little from the exchange, but several participants — including Taya Kyle, whose former Navy SEAL husband Chris was murdered by a troubled vet with a firearm — challenged Obama on both his policies and his rhetoric. Kimberly Corban, a rape survivor, also strongly defended her right to defend herself and her family with lethal force if necessary. The event may not have changed any minds, but it showed that American citizens consider themselves the equal of their president, not subordinate. After a long string of SOTU obsequiousness, it was at the very least a refreshing change.
Congress could re-establish its coequal dignity by inviting the president to a debate. Instead of the normal two-way division of time, the presider could offer a three-way split, with the president and both parties getting equal time. The president might get 10 minutes to discuss an agenda item — in this case, let's use gun control. Then the party managers would each get 10 minutes to divide as they see fit to question the president and give him the option to answer. The same 30-minute commitment could be made for other issues — as many as a president wants to debate, or as few.
This could have many salutary benefits. First, it would remind both branches of their equal status and responsibilities under the Constitution. That would restore the actual purpose of the State of the Union. It would also transform the SOTU event from a one-sided lecture to an informative exchange, which might tend to engage voters rather than repel them. It would allow for a much fairer airing of issues, and perhaps even occasionally spark moments of agreement. It would also eliminate the need for the clunky "response speech" that has routinely been even more pointless than the State of the Union speech itself.
Or, perhaps presidents will feel much less inclined to show up for a debate rather than be given a primetime slot for an overblown campaign speech. They might opt instead for the Jefferson option — providing a report on the state of the union in writing for Congress to debate amongst themselves. That could be the best outcome of all.