SOTUs have become spectacles (and people love it), but are they really any good?

SOTUs have become spectacles (and people love it), but are they really any good?
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In many respects, President Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union Address observed traditional norms. The president took credit for successes, laid out a policy agenda, and waxed optimistic about the future.

Trump touted the “booming” economy, with unemployment at a 50-year low, and women, Hispanics and African-Americans faring better than ever. He attributed unprecedented economic growth to deregulation, income and corporate tax reductions, and a “virtual end to the ‘death’ tax.” 

He spent considerable time urging Congress to end illegal immigration and put “ruthless coyotes, cartels, drug dealers, and human traffickers out of business,” by building a wall on the border between Mexico and the United States.  He endorsed legislation on infrastructure, pre-existing conditions, and prescription drugs.

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He reviewed his administration’s foreign policy objectives in China, Russia, Venezuela, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea.  He called on members of the House and Senate to “reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution — and embrace the boundless potential cooperation, compromise, and the common good.” 

He concluded with a call to “reignite the American imagination… search for the tallest summit, set our sights on the brightest star… and rekindle the bonds of love and loyalty and memory that link us together as citizens as neighbors and patriots.”

To be sure, the Address had some hyper-partisan moments. President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE declared that “ridiculous partisan investigations” imperil peace and prosperity. He blasted the governor of Virginia, “who basically stated he would execute a baby after birth.” This claim — as well as assertions about “criminal illegal immigrants,” El Paso, Texas, MS-13, and healthcare — are keeping fact-checkers working overtime.

That said, most Americans like what they saw and heard. 

A poll conducted by CNN on Tuesday night found that 59 percent of viewers had a positive reaction to the speech, 17 percent a somewhat positive reaction, and 23 percent a negative reaction.  CBS reported similar results. These numbers are in line with initial reactions to previous SOTU addresses. 

The bounce, however, rarely lasts very long.

As this SOTU fades, and the “Tweeter-in-Chief” replaces “Teleprompter Trump,” it may be worth considering the degree to which the State of the Union Address has become a spectacle, increasingly remote from its intended purposes: to inform American citizens and promote collaboration between the executive and legislative branches of government. 

These days, SOTUs are less opportunities to define — and defend — policies and more strings of punch lines, guest appearances, sentimental and sunny clichés, and applause-fests.

Ronald Reagan transformed SOTUS in 1982, by creating the “hero in the balcony” cameo.  Reagan introduced Lenny Skutnik, who had rescued survivors of a plane crash from the freezing Potomac.  In the ensuing decades, guests in the chamber have consumed an ever-higher proportion of SOTU addresses.

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By my count, President Trump recognized fourteen individuals in the gallery, including Matthew Charles, the first person to be released from prison under the First Step Act; ICE Special Agent Elvin Hernandez, who leads investigations into sex trafficking; Grace Eline, a ten-year old girl afflicted with brain cancer; Timothy Matson, a SWAT officer wounded during the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh; Debra Bissell, whose parents were murdered by illegal aliens; Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin; Joshua Kaufman, a Holocaust survivor; and World War II veterans Joseph Reilly, Irving Locker, and Herman Zeitchik.

An exercise in pandering, this ritual can also be misleading and dangerous. The murder of Debra Bissell’s parents, for example, does not constitute evidence that illegal immigrants commit more violent crimes than legal immigrants or individuals born in the United States. They do not.

Congressional applause fests also trivialize political discourse. President Trump was interrupted by applause dozens of times, usually following uncontroversial, sentimental, patriotic, or partisan comments. 

All Americans, he said, “can get behind the fight against childhood cancer.” Not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans leapt to their feet to applaud. 

Some viewers, I suspect, were touched when the chamber sang “Happy Birthday” to Judah Samet, who survived ten months in a Nazi concentration camp and the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. The sentiment may well have been genuine, but this “hero in the balcony” moment was also a distraction.

Bread and circuses don’t create an informed citizenry. Neither do celebrified State of the Union addresses.  

Perhaps we should return to the nineteenth century practice of SOTUs delivered in writing. Or create new congressional norms, akin to those in symphony halls, which encourage applause, but only at the end of the piece.

But, alas, we may be forced to acknowledge that spectacle is in the saddle, and rides American politics.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University, and the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.