There aren’t many things I agree with Antonin Scalia about, and even fewer with Clarence Thomas. But the Supreme Court justices’ refusal to attend the annual State of the Union Address on the grounds that it is an exercise in puerile nonsense is a point well taken. This year’s event was a case in point.
A yearly report on the state of the nation is one of the few constitutionally prescribed duties of the president. He need not deliver it in-person; it may simply be a communication to the Congress, delivered as convenient.
These days, an email (presidentially embossed, I suppose, since we no longer use wax signets) would suffice. The ritual of an address to a joint session of the two houses is a 20th century practice. It does have the merit of bringing the two houses together, which in our world of gridlocked politics may sometimes be the only way to do it.
On the other hand, for those of us who, whether out of habit or fascination (the fascination of the abomination, of course) do tune in, there is the moral health hazard of watching one of the most unsavory institutions on earth on display.
A few years ago, I wrote an essay called “Representative Government: How Sure a Thing?” as an afterword for a scholarly volume on legislative bodies in Early Modern Europe. In it I noted how parliamentary sovereignty, having taken root in 17th-century England, had gradually spread through much of the continent and to the New World.
The Founding Fathers, although they wanted a reasonably strong executive, had placed primary authority in Congress: the power to vote taxes, make laws and declare wars.
The most astute early commentator on the early republic, Alexis de Tocqueville, certainly considered Congress the chief seat of government. He expressed skepticism as to whether the presidency could ever become a truly coordinate branch.
Well, times do change. We now refer to the imperial presidency, which is a term of opprobrium, suggesting the need for constraint when it was first adopted in the 1970s, but now merely a normative description. I might add that the modern executive is preeminent now in virtually all countries.
But it is in the United States that the acts of the executive are the most consequential, and so the American presidency is rightly an object of fascination, and sometimes of horror, around the world.
The State of the Union is now a presidential performance, nothing more or less. The assembled dignitaries — legislative, judicial, military — listen quietly, and applaud (or not) on cue.
It is a symbolic moment of deference to authority, and the opposition party, if it chafes at what it hears, can make no response but silence. Woe to those who jeer. The Prez has the microphone.
We learn, certainly, nothing about the Union in what is said. Its state is always sound. If any problems are acknowledged, they are always described as “challenges” which a resolute president (and a compliant Congress) will surely meet.
A climate crisis veering beyond human control? An inegalitarian society in which the few prosper — obscenely, unaccountably, untaxably — at the expense of the many? Wars which morph endlessly into more wars, draining blood and treasure while roads and bridges crumble and public education fades from sight? Mere challenges.
Racism? Don’t even mention it. Our first black president didn’t.
The president, having achieved the significant feat of turning a comfortable Democratic majority in both houses of Congress into a substantial Republican one in four years, looked relaxed and confident.
Well, might he take pride in his accomplishment? When he rode a wave of revulsion at the Bush administration into a historic victory in 2008, even Republicans were predicting a generation in the wilderness for their discredited brand.
It was no small feat to have brought them back so completely in a quarter of the time. President Barack Obama can take justified pride in this accomplishment. It is his alone.
Certainly, Obama entered the House chamber looking like a man who had completed his historic task. As commentators have noted, his demeanor since the crushing Democratic defeat in November — an election in which the President was almost wholly sidelined by “his” party, whose candidates feared his presence by their side as they would the plague — has been almost that of a man reborn: “liberated” is the term most often employed.
But, liberated from what? Obama no longer has the slightest hope of passing what, year after year, he has set forth before Congress as his agenda: a feeble supplement to his originally feeble economic stimulus; some form of gun control (he never did specify what); a token swipe at this country’s $2 trillion infrastructure repair and replacement bill.
The Republicans will pass immigration reform when and if they get around to it and on their own terms. They will cut away at Obamacare, not that they really oppose (it is a bonanza for the profit-driven medical industry) but simply because Democrats passed it; keep trying to gut Roe v. Wade; and make the world safe for polluters.
In short, they are behaving as if they control the White House as well as the legislature, and the fact is that they have, except briefly, controlled both since the second year of the Bill Clinton presidency, when Newt Gingrich swept the Republicans to power in Congress.
The president has said that he will have his veto pen at the ready to protect the body politic from the GOP stampede. But this is political theater. What Obama has been “liberated” from is the pretense of being a Democratic president, insofar as such an animal exists.
Oh, he’ll sound like one: soak the rich, save the environment, make education affordable — you know, all those utopian, crackpot ideas that other nations have taken for granted for decades. But he won’t even have to pretend an interest in bringing any of them to pass; even in the pathetically wan, adulterated form he offers them, they’re dead on arrival in Congress.
And a Republican Congress isn’t his fault, because, as he reminded us, he won his own elections, and what more can anyone expect?
The truth is that Obama has succeeded at the real agenda that he had from the outset: recapitalizing Wall Street and protecting its oligarchic control of the economy, extending the surveillance state and expanding the George W. Bush legacy from the boardroom to the bedroom, slow or no-walking environmental reform while doubling down on fossil fuel extraction, driving full steam ahead to impose the universally despised Common Core standards on public education, already in its death throes, etc., etc.
People are wondering whether we’re in for a revival of the Bush dynasty or the Clinton one in 2016. But the Bushes never really left office. Bill Clinton’s presidency was the second and third term of George H. W. Bush, so much so that the nominal Republican candidate in 1996, Bob Dole, had stolen the party platform out from under him.
Obama has been the third and fourth terms of George W. Bush. That’s more than a quarter century not only of one-party but one-family rule. I believe the correct term for this is monarchy.
Like Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney were blinds for the Bush dynasty. Democrats need to be the official winners now and then to preserve the illusion of two-party governance, although when it’s actually the turn of a Bush to sit in the White House, elections can’t be allowed to stand in the way.
The Supreme Court demonstrated this in 2000 by appointing George W. President after his defeat at the polls.
If there’s any system this resembles, it’s that of Russia. Vladimir Putin has to cede the presidency every eight years by law, so he switches chairs then with his puppet prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. Everyone knows it’s still Putin who’s in charge.
The Bush clan is a family enterprise, so the members and the generations rotate. Like the Habsburgs, their mediocrity is fabled, but they’ve learned the art of survival.
Obama, the latest family retainer, has carried water faithfully. In retirement, he’ll make a bundle, just as Clinton has done.
And if Hillary Clinton should win the 2016 election, well, small difference. There’s no warmer friendship in politics than the one Bill struck up with George H. W. You might say they’re as thick as thieves.
In fact, that’s just what you should say.
Robert Zaller is a history professor at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].