Friday, January 29, 2010

The State of the State of the Union Address

Last week a friend brought up the fact that he prefers the AFC and NFC Conference Championships to Super Bowl Sunday. The Super Bowl has evolved into a media spectacle, a circus that Americans feel compelled to watch, and something that almost never lives up to the hype. The Conference Championships, on the other hand, provide a day of great football, free from all the overexposure.

Sometimes I feel the same way about the State of the Union address. If you're looking for in-depth policy analysis, lengthy debate or nuanced political theory, you're not going to get it here. But still, one feels compelled to tune in; it is, after all, mandated in the Constitution that the President needs to do this, and there's something immensely satisfying about the speech. It's a summary of the previous year, an agenda for the next, a rallying cry for the President's party and an admonishment addressed to the opposition, all rolled into one. One feels like a patriot just for taking an hour to watch, and by the time that the President concludes that "The State of the Union is strong!", I'm always ready to stand up and sing our national anthem.

Only this year was different. Obama used requisite "strong" moniker right at the get-go; the conclusion, however, was reserved for speaking about how to strengthen the union, rather than reiterating that everything was fine. The tone was subdued and darker, and Obama had a hard line to straddle - admitting that times are tough while still trying to instill the speech with his trademark optimism and "Yes We Can!" mentality.

At times, he almost felt like a game show host (especially toward the middle of his speech when he started giving away tax incentives to all sorts of people), but other times he was the stern parent, using the classic "I'm not angry...I'm just disappointed" rhetoric. He took some well-deserved shots at Congress (one friend texted me: "This whole speech is just Obama telling the Senate to do its job"), and a somewhat low blow at the Supreme Court. Obama was simultaneously a raging populist harping on the banks, a somewhat defensive apologist for the stimulus, an ambitious idealist, a resigned pragmatist, a jokester, and a stick-in-the-mud who takes himself too seriously. He both was a Washington insider, and an everyman who took pains to separate himself from the politics of Congress. He donned many hats over the course of those seventy minutes, and the result was more than a little dizzying.

The content of the actual speech contained few surprises (even the biggest shocker - Obama's pledge to allow gays to serve in the military by the end of the year - was leaked a few days previously). His agenda remains the same, though perhaps expressed in more eloquent terminology. Create jobs. Pass health care reform. Convert to alternative energy sources. By this point, most Americans have made up their minds on these issues one way or another, and though Obama tried to make the argument that even dissenters should at least be willing to listen, I don't think he (or anyone) harbors the illusion that this speech will sway any minds.

But content is never the crowning achievement of the State of the Union address. Rather, it is the very form that the event takes that is the most important, even if that form seems almost anachronistic. The Founding Fathers conceived of the speech as a way to keep track of what the hell the President was up to, making sure that wily Executive Branch wasn't getting too out of control. The summaries were dry, formal, and often delivered in writing. It wasn't until the Wilson administration that Washington's practice of reciting the speech in person was brought back; the advent of radio a few years later led to Calvin Coolidge delivering the address over the airwaves as well, changing the audience of the speech forever.

Now, of course, the President uses this time to indirectly address the American people - talking to Congress is only a formality. This was perhaps a necessity before the ubiquity of television; now, however, we're in an age where the White House has a Twitter feed and the President's Weekly Radio Address has turned into a weekly Youtube address. The Internet is chock full of both news organizations and independent political blogs, and there's quite a few cable news networks that track every move and every comment made by pretty much every politician, twenty-four hours a day. America knows what's going on, right? Why sit down and listen to this stuffy old-fashioned speech, a speech filled with arguments and statistics we've heard a million times before?

In the past, Obama has been good about peppering his speeches with catchy sound bites, pithy quotes, phrases like "Yes we can!" that are good fodder for campaign buttons but don't actually mean anything. Last night, however, I noticed a distinct lack of those kind of rallying calls. But this is not a bad thing. Obama was not focused on the cheap feel good moment; rather, the speech was looking very firmly into the future. Most State of the Unions do this, albeit in a hazy, nebulous fashion. But on Wednesday, quite emphatically, Obama was calling for a long-term vision.

You can love Obama or hate him, but you've got to respect the sort of lengthy perspective of these kind of speeches. We're more connected to the political world than we've ever been before. Politicians are on Facebook, Congressional bills are available to read on the Internet, there are three different C-SPANS in my basic cable package alone. We have a lot of this information at our fingertips, but as a consequence, I worry that we're growing too focused on the short term. As pundits track daily poll movements, and audiences focus on irrelevant sound bites and Freudian slips, the news media (and yes, us bloggers) have lost their sense of perspective. Every day I can turn on the radio and hear the progress on the health care bill (or lack thereof), but far less often is there any sort of context, any sort of long-term look at where America is coming from on this issue and the possibilities for its future beyond the next election.

But the State of the Union forces us to think about this sort of stuff. For one night out of the year, our brains instead can look at the big picture, the way this sort of thing might eventually be addressed in history books. Now, we shouldn't think like this all the time, or we'd end up wallowing in abstraction and what-if scenarios. But once in a while, a larger perspective is a good thing. A cohesive speech, devoid of rallying calls or overused slogans, filled with references to our country's past history, is even better.

I think the state of the State of the Union address is strong. A 70 minute speech might seem a bit lengthy for our modern, 180-character attention spans (Obama is already receiving some flack for his loquacity), but I believe it's important to pay attention to these lengthy endeavors. There are never easy answers in the State of the Union, nor should there be. But a good form of this speech might force Americans to ponder questions they might otherwise not want to think about. This is a good thing.

So, if you missed the speech, find it on YouTube. Or dig up a transcript and read it, if you haven't got the time to wade through the ponderous punctuations of applause. Depending on your political affiliation, you're going to walk away thinking the speech is inspirational or thinking that Obama is the biggest con man this side of Bernie Madoff. Either option is fine. Just as long as Americans set aside their truncated CNN news summaries and spend time thinking about the speech at all, our country will be on the right track.