Kenyon GS: Does the State of the Union really matter?

Opinions Columnist
Thursday, January 22, 2015

Six years into his presidency, even President Barack Obama acknowledges that Americans are craving that “new car smell” once again. While the State of the Union unofficially serves as the kickoff to a new year of political aims and strategies, increasingly, the political pep rally for the commander-in-chief has been called into question as anything more than a predictable wish list for even the most ideal of politicians. For many Americans, the annual address to the nation is simply a reiteration of a president’s campaign pledges: providing tax breaks, bringing jobs home, giving Americans a “fair shot” and working to make America stronger — so optimistic, yet so vague, that such generic talking points could be from either political party.

I have watched the State of the Union address for years, across presidencies from both parties. I have witnessed the repeated pageantry of our commanders-in-chief outlining the figments of their political fantasies. Is America a nation of personal savings accounts for healthcare? Not exactly. Will America become a nation of free community college? I do not know. Does the State of the Union address matter? Of course it does — and of course it does not.

The Obama presidency is still ahead of its eleventh hour. President Obama has procured a newfound hobby in threatening vetoes, as well as threatening executive action on particular policy. Presumed presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle are already aligning for a 2016 ideological melee. The issues Obama laid out on Tuesday night will indeed find their way into the debates and campaign themes of up-and-coming candidates — perhaps even the campaign of our next commander-in-chief. Who is to say that a candidate Bush, one of the few Republican supporters of the Common Core, would not appeal to the concept of eliminating the cost of attending community college? Who is to say that a candidate Clinton would not appeal to Obama’s proposed easing of trade policy?

The ideas proposed on Tuesday night may not materialize in 2015, or even in 2016 — but now that they have found life in Obama’s speech, they won’t be disappearing. Perhaps these ideas should be treated as ‘zombie’ issues, similar to the undying notion in the Republican Party that someone will one day again resemble Ronald Reagan. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I do not feel confident that will happen.

Political junkies like myself watch the State of the Union for all the wrong reasons. I love being able to name almost every politician that Obama shakes hands with as he walks down the aisle. I eagerly await seeing the politicians’ responses to Obama’s words. Who stands and applauds? Who has the best facial expressions? And how many times can Vice President Joe Biden make me smile? My personal favorites from Tuesday night’s speech include the camera zooms on Energy Secretary Dr. Ernest Moniz’s face and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s decision to take a siesta mid-speech. I sometimes wonder if such moments could be scripted any better. Let my merriment be a shining example, however — I watch the address largely for my own entertainment.

Substantively, I struggle to find hardcore policy unveiled in the annual address. While many critical elements of the speech are routinely released ahead of time, many talking points lack gravitas and are vague at best. The address does little to assure me that anything beyond the political status quo is occurring. Democrats will still be Democrats, Republicans will still be Republicans, taxes will still be levied, international dilemmas are still afoot and the world will still keep turning — no surprises here. My tuition payment to Brown will affect me in August, just as it did back on the first of the month.

Do not mistake me as a naysayer. The address’ call to action is a theme I carry in my daily life. Just as Obama said “we’ve got to up our game” on knowledge, so I up my game to face the challenges in my life. All Americans, all Brunonians, up their game every year, and it is not something to celebrate, but something we all must do. Slowly but surely, the Obama administration has touched our lives at Brown — whether through mandating all Americans purchase health insurance, contributing to the national dialogue on racial tension that still exists in America or even providing opportunities for some Brunonians to intern in the administration. All of these indirect interactions require no address.

What do moments like the State of the Union truly accomplish nowadays? In our increasingly connected world, where social media and an infinite news cycle can draw citizens closer to their government and to their representatives, is the State of the Union still salient, or is it a tradition past its heyday?

Prior to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the annual address — then known as the Annual Message — stood as an annual administrative report on government functions, with a large focus on budgetary and economic activity from the preceding year. It was in 1913, when Wilson brought the address back to an in-person joint session of Congress, that it grew as a platform for presidential policy whims. The address has deviated so much from its sole duty as a report on government, that I ask: is it now nothing more than political pageantry and one of the few days a year some of our politicians become celebrities?

It was hard not to ask these questions as I watched Obama leave the House chamber, signing his autograph on everything from copies of the address to a Senate page’s tie. Perhaps it’s just me, but I feel no different than I did prior to hearing the address. Do you?

Ian Kenyon is a Master of Public Affairs candidate with the Taubman Center for American Institutions and Public Policy. He received his undergraduate degree in Political Science from the State University of New York, College at Oneonta.