The State of the Union address usually takes center stage on news circuits all over the country for at least the week leading up to the annual message. Pundits banter over what should be included, what definitely won’t be included and all the idiosyncrasies of delivering a carefully planned speech to the majority of all the important people in Washington.
It’s kind of a big deal.
The framers of the Constitution, per Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 thought it best to require the president to, “give to Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
In other words, Congress should hear two things from the president: the status of the country in the here and now and what steps need to be taken to guide the country to success in the future.
Thomas Jefferson cemented that a speech should serve as the format, and Woodrow Wilson really turned the content on its head — moving it from a relatively short message about the overall well-
being of the country to the much lengthier version we have today, which focuses on giving reports on executive branch departments, the budget, the economy and even, in the most recent administrations, a bit of campaigning.
The president isn’t required to give the speech every year. The phrase “from time to time” in the Constitution gives a lot of wiggle room. But historically, with a few exceptions, it happens every year. In order for the president to give that speech before the joint houses of Congress, however, he must first be invited by the Speaker of the House. In an effort to reinforce separation of powers, the president doesn’t just get to waltz into the House unless it is at the current occupant’s request.
So traditionally, for most of us, the president has always given his yearly speech. And generally our cable news outlets look for the opportunity to cash in on some prime time viewing. It’s advertised for weeks; we hear about it every day leading up to the event.
But not this year.
This year it took us by surprise. Between the impeachment trial, the Iowa caucus — and its subsequent disaster — the coronavirus, the tragic death of beloved NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and the dozens of other pressing events that have taken over our newsfeeds and dominated discussion, the State of the Union address snuck up on us.
Very little was exchanged between talking heads about this particular speech. I almost felt unprepared going into it, as if I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from the almost always tedious address.
I should have known better.
I remember in high school we were required to watch it as an assignment in history and government classes. We all dreaded it. It was long. And boring. And nobody ever said or did anything interesting — except for the rare occasions where the camera would catch a senator sleeping.
That’s not the case anymore.
The State of the Union has become a prime source of entertainment. It’s like a new version of Real Housewives. Good for ratings. Bad for the health of the nation.
The best word to describe this year’s State of the Union? Juvenile.
That word doesn’t describe just one of the political parties. It describes both of them. It doesn’t describe only the president or only the Speaker of the House. It describes them both — far, far too accurately.
The truth is that the State of the Union address this year was a perfect reflection of what we have decided to accept as satisfactory behavior by the people we elect to represent us. The president’s unwillingness to follow tradition and shake the Speaker’s hand; the wildly inappropriate ripping up of the speech transcript; the refusal to stand and acknowledge when legitimate progress was mentioned; the excessive standing ovations and over the top response to embellishment.
We are now accepting from our elected leaders the same kind of behavior that we spend our lives teaching our children not to engage in. We want our kids to win with humility and lose with grace. We want them to respect positions of authority and use their voice to make a difference in the world without hurting others. More simply put, we don’t want them to throw tantrums in the grocery store when they don’t get what they want.
What we won’t accept from our two-year old in Publix we now accept from the highest elected authorities on Capitol Hill.
The world watched the show in the hallowed chamber of the House of Representatives and took a collective sigh of disappointment. The shining beacon of hope that once was the United States of America is childishly and gleefully engaging in mean-spirited, contemptible behavior that has no real chance of effectively governing anyone, much less effectively leading the world.
This is not a Republican problem. This is not a Democratic problem. This is not a President Trump problem. This is not a Nancy Pelosi problem.
This is an American problem.
And a choice to not respond with embarrassment and disappointment is simply unacceptable.
Cortney Stewart is a 2003 graduate of Lecanto High School. She has bachelor’s degrees in political science and international affairs, a master’s degree in intercultural studies and is currently working on her Ph.D. in international conflict management. She most recently spent two years teaching and training students, teachers and government officials in Baghdad, Iraq. Email her at email@example.com.