“I’m also issuing a new goal for America,” declared President Obama at his “State of the Union” on Tuesday. We’ll come to the particular “goal” he “issued” momentarily, but before we do, consider that formulation: Did you know the president of the United States is now in the business of “issuing goals” for his subjects to live up to?
Strange how the monarchical urge persists even in a republic two-and-a-third centuries old. Many commentators have pointed out that the modern State of the Union is in fairly obvious mimicry of the Speech from the Throne that precedes a new legislative session in British Commonwealth countries and Continental monarchies, but this is to miss the key difference. When the Queen or her viceroy reads a Throne Speech in Westminster, Ottawa or Canberra, it’s usually the work of a government with a Parliamentary majority: in other words, the stuff she’s announcing is actually going to happen. That’s why, lest any enthusiasm for this or that legislative proposal be detected, the apolitical monarch overcompensates by reading everything in as flat and unexpressive a monotone as possible. Underneath the ancient rituals – the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod getting the door of the House of Commons slammed in his face three times – it’s actually a very workmanlike affair.
The State of the Union is the opposite. The president gives a performance, extremely animatedly, head swiveling from left-side prompter to right-side prompter, continually urging action now: “Let’s start right away. We can get this done. … We can fix this. … Now is the time to do it. Now is the time to get it done.” And at the end of the speech, nothing gets done, and nothing gets fixed, and, after a few days’ shadowboxing between admirers and detractors willing to pretend it’s some sort of serious legislative agenda, every single word of it is forgotten until the next one.
In that sense, like Beyoncé lip-synching the National Anthem at the Inauguration, the State of the Union embodies the decay of America’s political institutions into a simulacrum of responsible government rather than the real thing, and a simulacrum ever more divorced from the real issues facing the country. “Over the last few years, both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion,” said the president. Really? Who knew? “Now we need to finish the job.” Just one more push is all it’ll take.