Analysis and punditry abound lamenting the decline of civic participation, the loss of true representation in Congress and the lack of accessibility of the federal government to the American people. On Tuesday night, however, many of us watched as President Barack Obama delivered a near hour-long speech in front of Supreme Court justices, senators, cabinet members and the always well-bronzed, yet surprisingly dry eyed, John Boehner. We were given the state of our union.
With this Capitol scene annually etched in our generation’s minds, it’s easy for us to take this format of the State of the Union for granted. As recently as 1981, it was not assumed that the State of the Union would be given by the president in front of Congress. Thomas Jefferson a spoken report in front of Congress was too British. He, along with all of the presidents until Woodrow Wilson in 1913, submitted lengthy written reports to Congress that contained suggestions for the legislative year, rather than presidential policy agendas. Even Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter at some time in their terms avoided the oral State of the Union.
Now, we can watch as the president outlines the imperative for a 21st century infrastructure, honors Chilean mining hero Brandon Fisher, and makes jokes about airport security pat-down procedures (too soon for some of us). Liberals can throw their organic popcorn at the television when the president suggests cutting corporate tax rates, and conservatives can chuck tea cups at the screen when Obama sells his healthcare bill.
When the speech is over, millions of status updates, tweets and blog posts crowd the waves, for once talking about something thought provoking/meaningful. We can choose or, better yet, choose not to watch a dizzying array of talking heads as they try to orchestrate an objective analysis with their pre-written talking points. We can even digest not one but two opposition response speeches, a practice non-existent until 1966. The College of William and Mary has taken to conducting “State of the Class” addresses in conjunction with the event, and both Young Democrats and College Republicans gather in their respective bunkers and simulate their spin operations.
All of this is made possible by the fact that the State of the Union is spoken to congressional and television audiences. This represents an improvement and extension of our democratic ethos, which has not always been the case. Rather than the President’s yearly report being accountable solely to a committee or sub-committee of a separate government branch, the President now feels the need to present and justify his agenda to the people. Instead of cynically dismissing the practice as that of a used car salesman, we should feel empowered by this now-regular affair.
As young adults, we have never experienced any other form of the State of the Union. This is precisely why we need to remember how even this small, symbolic function of our executive has developed and democratized over time. If for only one night, we can feel as though we are part of the government.