The State of the Union Is An Insult To Our Intelligence

Let’s stop kidding ourselves. The State of the Union has become a joke, and it’s time we stopped televising it.
President Joe Biden speaks as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) listen during a State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington, D.C.
President Joe Biden speaks as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) listen during a State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington, D.C.
Kent Nishimura via Getty Images

They’re less an address about the state of the nation and more of a television extravaganza, a spectacle where the only thing that matters is how things look.

It’s like what the Super Bowl has become, something less about 60 minutes of football and more about the circus surrounding it: the two-week buildup, media day, a controversial off-the-cuff remark by a player or coach that’s supposed to infuriate the other team, the commercials, and this year, some version of a drinking game involving Taylor Swift. Every time she’s on camera, take a shot!

Honestly, does anyone think viewers will tune in to Thursday’s State of the Union address to hear about the actual state of the union? No, they’ve already decided how the nation is doing. Instead, they’ll tune in to see one thing: whether Joe Biden is too old, or whether he can flip the script and convince people he can still go the distance.

That’s all anyone will talk about on Friday morning.

And probably because it is a television event, it’s an important moment in Biden’s presidency and candidacy. (More on that in a second.)

Remember when he jogged from backstage to the microphone at the Democratic National Convention in 2020? What, you think he ran because he felt like getting in some quick cardio? No, that was all about optics. Look at that old guy run! He’s still got it!

That’s what this speech is about tonight.

In theory, the address is supposed to tout the administration’s achievements (and Biden has several), list national priorities, offer tactical anecdotes about guests, and propose a legislative agenda for the year ahead ― or, in Biden’s case, the next four years.

But for most viewers, those things are little more than empty boasts, false promises and political props, nothing memorable. The only moment most voters can recall in such a forum is “You lie,” which didn’t even happen during a State of the Union address. No doubt taking a cue from that moment, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republicans’ Cruella de Vil, shouted “Liar!” at Biden during his State of the Union speech last year.

After Barack Obama’s speech, Republican South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson apologized for his outburst. Greene did not, saying she was “honored” to be able to do it. We’ve come a long way.

And maybe that’s the way it needs to be for Biden, at least for this speech. His conciliatory nature and bipartisan approach, honed through many years in the Senate, just won’t cut it. But a president with a big megaphone and a little more “take no prisoners” venom might convince viewers that he still has vigor. Let the MAGA mopes have it, no punches pulled. Call it an “Embarrassment Tour.” That’d be a speech worth watching.

Maybe the first thing you do is tell the Democrats not to applaud every five sentences. Hold the cheers until the end. No one wants to see gratuitous standing ovations that look more like a group whack-a-mole session.

Then, Biden could address questions about his age head-on. “You’re right, we’re a couple of old geezers,” he might joke. Admit that his stutter sometimes impedes his speech, and that arthritis that makes his gait stiff. But being president is about selecting good advisers, weighing their advice and making sound strategic decisions, all things at which he excels and at which Donald Trump is completely incompetent.

Next, bring up some issues. Start with immigration. Demand that Congress provide funding to hire thousands more border agents, asylum and customs officers and Immigration and Customs Enforcement staff. Pass legislation that raises evidentiary standards for asylum seekers so they undergo criminal background checks, and shorten the legal review process from 10 years to six months. Pass legislation that gives the president and the Department of Homeland Security the authority to shut down the border at ports of entry, and give border agents the power to quickly send migrants back to Mexico if certain thresholds are met.

Let’s see who cheers. If any Republicans do, Biden should point to them: “I see my Republican friends like those ideas.” Then he should point out that all those provisions were contained in the bipartisan immigration bill that Republicans torpedoed last month.

“Why?” Biden could say. “Because they didn’t want me, or fellow Democrats, to get any credit for dealing with the border crisis. And maybe because they need a campaign issue to hammer for the coming election.”

Use a little technology. No, not the teleprompter. How about a big screen, like the kind you see at stadium concerts so folks in the cheap seats can have a better view. And on it, put clips of Republicans like Rep. Troy Nehls (Texas) and Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.) admitting they opposed the bipartisan immigration bill solely because they didn’t want Biden or the Democrats to be able to say they addressed the border issue.

Point to Hawley or Nehls. Ask them: “You did say those things, didn’t you?”

Bring up foreign aid. Say: “I am asking Congress to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to friends of America, not enemies of America.”

Show clips of Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of the Republican Party, warning in one of his own State of the Union speeches of “the Soviet drive for domination.” Keep 1983’s “Evil Empire” speech in your back pocket, just in case. Pull from any number of speeches Reagan made in the 1980s warning of Soviet aggression.

Show a clip of Nehls admitting that the only reason for the House effort to impeach Biden is about “Donald Trump, 2024, baby.”

Show how Republicans like Rep. David Joyce (Ohio) or Rep. Don Bacon (Neb.) saying there’s been no evidence to justify impeachment.

“Put up or shut up,” Joyce told NewsNation’s Dan Abrams. “You either have the evidence or you don’t.”

Let the Republicans boo. Then show Trump saying exactly that at his 2018 State of the Union. Then, ask attendees if it serves American interests to oppose Russian aggression.

Show Fox News star Peter Doocy saying the same thing Joyce said.

Point to Senate Republicans in attendance like Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Mitt Romney of Utah, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Jerry Moran of Kansas and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, all of them critical of the impeachment investigation.

Then ask the Republican delegation if they’d like to boo their fellow party members.

Maybe one of the White House guests could be Alexander Smirnov, who Fox News and House Republicans said would be the star witness to prove Biden and his son Hunter were involved in a Ukrainian bribery scheme... until it turned out Smirnov lied to the FBI about all of it, and was arrested for his fabrications. He’d be accompanied in the gallery, of course, by some nice FBI agents.

Yes, embarrass the hell out of them. It’s not like the White House communications staff couldn’t dig up whatever incriminating video it wanted for such an enterprise, and do a better job of it than me. Call out the idiocies of a MAGA-controlled House, and the spineless Republican moderates who say nothing about what those on the far right have done to their party and conservative ideals.

Their reticence may even be worse. The words of Thomas More, one of the early modern humanists of the Renaissance Era, ring true.

Qui tacet consentire videtur, he said. Silence is consent.

If the address is no longer anything but a spectacle, have at it. Make the most of it and do something that is as spectacular as it is long overdue.

While I appreciate Biden’s gentlemanly demeanor and reasonable nature, making nice about bipartisanship is not going to cut it with party extremists who only suspend their inertia to benefit themselves rather than the nation, and who make no secret of their desire to bring Biden down at any cost.

They made a similar pledge to make his former boss a one-term president. This is not governance, so why not use the grand stage to call them out on their malarkey? As we’ve discussed in this space, the media certainly seems incapable of doing so.

It won’t happen.

Instead, we’ll get a dog and pony show akin to the red carpet schmoozefest that precedes the Academy Awards. A speech filled with insultingly obvious applause lines, without which the whole thing would be mercifully shorter. As the address rambles on, one side cheers, the other side sits on their hands.

TV coverage shows some lawmaker with a grumpy face, destined to become the next internet meme. Depending on their political party, the vice president and House speaker sitting behind the president either nod in approval or make sour faces while shaking their head. How many Supreme Court justices are attending? Will one of them mouth something controversial?

The media will fact-check, all after the fact. Someone will be there to tell you how many standing ovations the president got, as if this were a matter of national significance. Every moment is treated like something close to pageantry.

The State of the Union isn’t an address. It’s a performance, so much so that theatre critics have offered analysis.

Do we really need all that? Does any of it advance the nation’s progress? We have enough loony-tune theatrics to distract us. They’re called Republicans.

Perhaps there’s an object lesson in Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign. He prepared at the state library in Springfield, Illinois. In February, he came to Cooper Union in New York with a written text of 7,300 words. He delivered it. He delivered the speech several more times at stops in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Then he went back home to Illinois. And that was it. That was the extent of his campaign effort.

The speech, first printed by New York newspapers, was widely circulated as campaign literature. But Lincoln stayed home, receiving delegations that came to visit with him. People would ask, “What’s your position?” He’d say, “Read the speech.”

I don’t know why we don’t do some version of that with the State of the Union. Deliver a written copy of the speech to Congress, thus fulfilling the constitutional requirement. (This was the common practice for presidents until Woodrow Wilson personally delivered his message in 1913.) Then, provide copies of the speech to media outlets to publish on their websites for anyone else to read.

Of course, some people will cherry-pick the text for the benefit of their biased audiences. Worse, most people won’t read the entire speech at all.

How ironic that we live in an age of instant information delivery: webcasts, podcasts, Facebook, Shmacebook, Google, Shmoogle, Twitter, 24-hour television and satellite radio — a market basket of ways to reach the country with the click of a mouse, the tap of a button. Yet just as presidential campaigns have gotten longer instead of shorter, State of the Union speeches have become affirmational rather than informational, self-serving rather than serving the public.

Either way, if we can’t get what I’d prefer to see — and what I think many of us would like to see — then how about this modest suggestion: a drinking game. That seems to have become a popular pastime for these events. Every time the members give a standing ovation, drink. You’ll probably pass out within 30 minutes. At least you won’t have to hear the rest of the speech.

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