Another political spectacle come and gone

What does it say about our modern politicians when the most (only?) memorable part of the annual State of the Union address is the introduction of a certifiable hero siting in the gallery?

These events are political theater and mostly bad theater at that.   Last night’s address was extraordinary in one respect: President Obama completed the long-term trajectory away from the constitutional underpinnings of the address by making it clear that he was ready to act unilaterally via executive order.  Via the Boston Globe:

“I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still — and neither will I,” he told members of Congress as he called for “a year of action.” “So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Consider the actual text of the Constitution, from Article II:

He shall 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

One can hardly blame the President for seeking public policy shelter in the comfort of the executive branch.  This Congress doesn’t legislate.  It obstructs.

Still, a State of the Union that highlights what a President will do on his own is not, in fact, a State of the Union.  And no amount of storytelling at the outset can change that reality.

Even if this Congress chose to legislate, the the modern State of the Union routinely misses the mark by the incessant laundry lists that treat the separation of powers as a constitutional hiccup rather than the essence of the system.

President Obama didn’t create this State of the Union mess, he’s simply furthered the trend.  It was President Reagan who first really used stagecraft, expanding the spectacle of the State of the Union to include references to honored guests, American heroes, and just plain regular citizens.

Under Reagan the annual, constitutionally mandated address, became a forum for storytelling.

And on it goes.  Now many members of Congress use ordinary citizens, many of whom face significant struggles, or outlandish pseudo celebrities for their own mini political spectacles during the event.

Next year, we citizens should organize a citizens’ state of the union and invite Cory Remsburg to be the speaker.  Given the inability of Congress to do its job as well as the overt political rally the SOTU has become, I’d much rather spend some time listening to what he thinks is necessary and expedient.




About Peter Ubertaccio

Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & International Studies. His work focuses on political parties, marketing and institutions. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Professor Ubertaccio and his family live on Cape Cod where he is on the Board of Directors of the OpenCape Corporation and the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation.
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