State of the Union, 2023

Alan Zendell, February 9, 2023

Article II of our Constitution requires that the President “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.” It’s a simple, expository decree that tells us a fair amount about how the founders pictured it happening. The first thing that jumped out at me was that the President is referred to as “he.” Does that mean that if Hilary Clinton had won in 2016 she’d have been exempt from having to address Congress?

More to the point, the formal, yet casual phrasing suggests a sedate process in which the President executes his duty to keep the country informed and takes responsibility for initiating the debate on what projects ought to be funded in the coming year. It’s almost as if Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton foresaw a Congress populated by responsible adults whose primary concern was governing the country. Congress would eagerly await the sage advice of the nation’s leader, and “he” would deliver it in sober unemotional tones.

That’s a sweet fairy tale. As we know, our founders weren’t shy about expressing their differences, as their heated arguments over federalism proved. The competition for power between states’ rights and central authority and between the Executive and Legislative branches of the federal government was in full swing in the 1780s. Given the tradition of loud, often acrimonious debate in Britain’s House of Commons, which was the model from which our Congress was designed, they surely understood that the annual State of the Union would not be a paragon of harmony and unity.

I doubt, however, that they imagined the spectacle the SOU has become. In my lifetime, it was usually an opportunity for the President to tout his accomplishments and express his goals for the coming year. The tradition of Representatives and Senators rising with polite applause to signal their agreement or silently sitting on their hands to express disapproval took on the form of an annual ritual. As such it was predictable, with a rhythm of its own, and since we generally knew the positions of all the key players in advance, rather boring unless you find rites of passage inherently fascinating.

I’m of two minds about this year’s SOU. On one hand, President Biden gave a pretty accurate reading of the accomplishments of his administration, working with the previous Congress, to reach bipartisan agreement whenever possible. The speech was powerful and effective, reaching out to several constituencies, communicating how the last two years of surprisingly robust legislation affected each of them. The audience rose and cheered or sat mum predictably. But what was most apparent was the degree to which the divisions in our country have come to dominate our politics.

On display was a Democratic Party that, at least for that one evening, put on a show of unity rarely seen in recent years. Also on display was a Republican Party looking like an iceberg about to calve into fragments. In January, the world watched Kevin McCarthy demonstrate that the only thing he cared about was being elected Speaker of the House, regardless of what it cost both his party and the country he’d sworn to govern responsibly. We saw him compromise his principles and integrity daily, as the most rabid adherents to Trump’s MAGA philosophy ripped him apart like sharks going after a kill, then danced and mocked him on their pet media outlets.

Regardless of which side you favor, it was apparent to everyone that McCarthy does not now and probably never will be able to control and unify his party. That means the party has no platform, no plan for the future except obstructing everything the President and his party put forth. That’s not a political statement, just an obvious conclusion. While McCarthy sought to have his party conduct themselves with decorum, showing respect for the institutions of government if not for a President they despise, the gang of Trumpers, led by Marjorie Taylor Greene behaved like rude, unruly children.

The result was a party and a Congress in disarray. Equally unseemly were reports that White House staff cheered and fist-bumped when Biden baited the MAGA crew and they went after him with bared fangs, while he smiled benignly. As a performance on the world stage, it was embarrassing, and perhaps worse, with the world watching to see whether America still has what it takes to lead the Free World, it was chilling. How can we expect our allies to have confidence in us when we openly parade our dysfunction for everyone to see?

The State of the Union was never intended to be a gladiatorial fight to the death, nor was it intended to be a contest of crude, vulgar behavior on the part of those who govern us.

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