A Note on the State of the Union

Let's go beyond the theater

If you hadn’t already dismissed the State of the Union address as a kind of political Oscars—a room full of rich folk clapping at announcements they already knew were coming—then the lead-up to this year’s address would surely have you convinced. Perhaps no coincidence that the Oscar noms came on the same day.

Firstly, we already know much of the content of the king’s speech to come. The White House has been shrewdly leaking all week, first with a preview video from the president, and then in several anonymous tips Tuesday discussing the policy content. Those are: a ban on earmarks and a freeze on non-defense discretionary spending among others. For narrative note, read: shift to the middle.

Secondly, pre-discussion of the speech fixated, as to be expected, on how that content will play to the Beltway political academy. To stretch a metaphor, it focused on what the speech will mean for Obama’s box office. Politico was up Monday night—twenty-four hours before the speech itself—with a “how the left was lost” piece on liberal reactions to the president’s speech to come. Okay, potential reactions mixed with some warnings: “Marginalizing the left didn’t work in 2010,” Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas told Politico. “If Democrats decide to double down on that strategy, they better pray for a Sarah Palin nomination.”

Elsewhere, Gallup helped the pundit predictions by releasing a poll showing few presidents have seen a rise in their approval rating following a SOTU. At the Post, Ezra Klein declared Tuesday morning that the “speech has already worked.” And Mark Halperin predicted Avatar-like returns. “The combination of his momentum, bipartisan seating arrangements and the emotion in the hall sure to be generated by guests from Arizona means the president is almost certainly going to have a boffo evening that plays to his political strong suits,” he writes, then adds, “Now he just has to deliver.”

Thirdly, about those seating arrangements—the theater, and pre-theater, focused as much on the audience as the stage. In the wake of Arizona and pressed under a new cry for “civility,” much of the pre-speech press was devoted to who’ll sit where. Not just where Tucson hero Daniel Hernandez would sit, but where each pol would plonk themselves down. Rather than sitting either side of the ideological divide that splits the House chamber at an angle determined by the most recent election, this year, a number of Congresspeople will cross the aisle to sit with their political adversaries.

The point? To avoid that ugly and divisive human two-column graph that seems to play out on TV whenever the president makes an ideologically un-neutral point. So we got reports that Democrat Chuck Schumer would sit with Republican Tom Coburn for example. And that Nancy Pelosi declined an invite to sit next to Eric Cantor—this isn’t a Jennifer-can’t-sit-near-Ange thing, she already promised to go with Republican Roscoe Bartlett. And then there are those testy Supreme Court Justices.

For the rest of the week we will be mired in SOTU overkill. We will be asked to reflect on just how well the president did—compared to his speech in Tucson. On whether Paul Ryan or Michele Bachmann was the more worthy Republican responder. On just how far right the president has moved. On how politically tenable the president’s proposals are for is core. On who cheered and why. On who grimaced and how. And, of course, on just what all of this means for 2012.

But amid the frenzy, a small request and a brief reminder. A lot of the boring stuff in the speech—the stuff perhaps not couched in rich Obaman flourishes—will be the litany of policies that make up the bulk of any State of the Union address. And policies, if debated and ultimately enacted, have a tentacular way of reaching outside the Beltway and into the lives of real people across the country. Budget cuts will do more than enrage the left: they will cost jobs and services. As would an end to earmarks and any raft of fiscally disciplined moves the president intends to announce.

In the same way health care reform and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell affect folk outside the Beltway more tangibly than they do senators and presidents, or pundits and bloggers, the policies discussed in the SOTU have a very human, almost apolitical face. This is more than stating the obvious. And it is similarly true that it’s not anything new to say we must always remember those who are on the ground when reporting on the policies that will affect them. But it can be easily forgotten in this call-write-push-publish-next age of the hungry digital media’s maw.

So as we report on the political implications of the State of the Union address, let’s also remember to bear in mind those outside the academy—the popcorn-munchers who have to sit through the movie—and focus our reporting on just how they might be impacted by the president’s plans, regardless of their political shrewdness. The State of the Union, in one sense, is an appropriately theatrical launch to that most outrageously theatrical, shallowly reported, hyperventilating, draining, and fascinating quadrennial (sort of) event: the presidential election campaign. It would be worth a bipartisan standing ovation if we kicked it off in the right thoughtful style.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , ,