American kabuki theater: The State of the Union address

Every year, at about this time, the major media treat us to the ultimate expression of political kabuki theater: The State of the Union address. Every year, the analysts get together and talk about what importance the speech may have and what sort of laundry list the President may lay out before Congress. I’ve watched these speeches on a regular basis beginning with President Reagan’s first State of the Union address in 1981. Those were the last days in which I found any aspect of these speeches even remotely impressive.

Over the last 10-15 years, I’ve begun to ask: what is the point of this address? Do we really need to have it televised? Does it actually matter?

No, not much. True, it is a constitutional requirement that the President report to Congress on the state of the Union. It says nothing, however about us having to watch it for an hour.

Why is the State of the Union address considered important? Is it because it actually has a substantive effect on national policy? No. It’s important merely as a media and political spectacle. The White House – regardless of who occupies it – uses it to unveil policy initiatives it intends to focus on. Most of the time however, we’re already well aware of what those policy initiatives are. A good example is the President’s request that Congress authorize an increase in the active duty strength of the Army and Marine Corps by 92,000 over the next five years. While as a former Marine, I am always supportive of any interest in strengthening the Marine Corps, that particular policy had been reported over a month ago. Did it really need to be included in the State of the Union?

Iraq policy was also a major portion of the speech, as most people expected and most news media reported. Problem is, we already knew all about that too, including the Democrats’ response given by Virginia Senator Jim Webb. So what was the point of talking about any of that in the speech? No point, really.

Don’t get me wrong – I still support the President, although admittedly not as much as I used to. I’m generally supportive of his policies and will certainly support the ones highlighted in the speech. It was not, however, at all necessary to highlight already well-known policies in an hour-long televised address. Some of you political neo-phites will look upon this as something akin to blasphemy; “This is such an important speech,” you’re probably thinking. No, it isn’t. It’s just theater, and has about as much substantive effect on your life and the life of the country as the latest episode of “American Idol,” but without the thrill of watching grossly untalented people be put in their place by that charmingly obnoxious Brit.

It would really be nice if, just for once, in this era of everything being a reality show, a modern President might take a cue from President Thomas Jefferson and just submit the State of the Union report to Congress in writing. That way we could all focus on things that actually are important.

Scott Wacholtz is a graduate student majoring in Middle Eastern history. He can be reached at