This year’s State of the Union Address is completely useless. No matter the policy goals that President Obama proposed, no matter the cool, catchy slogans he worked into his speech, it won’t matter. Nothing substantial that Obama proposed last night will have any chance of getting signed into law.
The State of the Union Address is no longer a policy speech about what new laws can be expected within the next year, particularly in this era of divided government, polarized beyond the point of cooperation. In recent years the State of the Union has better served as the subject of a drinking game than as a predictor of laws to come.
How many times did the president say “Year of Action,” this year’s catchy, poll-tested theme? How many times did Obama get a standing ovation from only half the room? These are the questions most people concern themselves with during the State of the Union, the content itself is a secondary concern.
As catchy as the “Year of Action” theme might be, there is nothing to indicate that this year will be any more active legislatively than previous years. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already said to expect another fight over the debt ceiling in a few months. President Obama can call 2014 a “Year of Action” all he wants, but Republicans in Congress will ensure it is instead label it a “Year of Inaction.”
The policies proposed won’t go anywhere, either. Last year, Obama proposed universal pre-school, gun control legislation, immigration reform and raising the minimum wage. None of which actually happened.
The most interesting thing at each State of the Union address is the painfully plodding political posturing done by the opposition immediately following the speech. The most memorable event at last year’s State of the Union Address was Marco Rubio reaching for a bottle of water, and, apparently, subsequently killing his chances at ever becoming president. But what used to be a single speech, a response by the major party not in power, is now a collection of several speeches. Everyone who wants to increase their media profile does a response.
At first it was just a “Tea Party” response, a further-right, dumbed down version of the regular Republican response to Obama. This year the regular Republican response is being given by two different people, one from Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rogers, and then another from Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, giving the Spanish-language “Republicans aren’t all white” version of McMorris Rogers’ response. And then Senator Mike Lee is offering the Tea Party response, and then Senator Rand Paul is offering the “Rand Paul is definitely running for president” response, which he has assured us will likely be uselessly similar to McMorris Rogers’ response.
The State of the Union is no longer important or useful as far as determining the state of the union. It serves only as a political speech delivered with much pomp and circumstance in prime time, interrupting all otherwise scheduled programming. Nothing President Obama said last night will change Speaker Boehner’s mind on bipartisanship, no applause line will make Senator Ted Cruz any less of a thorn in everyone’s side.
Everyone is free to watch the State of the Union, but don’t pretend it is some grand moment in American politics. When the most anticipated question about the event is not what the new proposals would be, but instead who the craziest guest invited by a congressman would be, it can no longer be considered serious. It’s time people take it for what it is.
Keene is a senior majoring in political science, public policy and economics.