What You Can Learn from Watching the State of the Union with the Sound Turned Off

Tonight is the night that the President goes before Congress and delivers his State of the Union address. Political scientists and political junkies alike will be sure to huddle around their screens, and out will come the red pens to parse the President’s words. But I wonder if some insightful anthropologists couldn’t be more helpful, and the words the President speaks might be the least important part of it.

All eyes on you, Mr. President.

All eyes on you, Mr. President.

It’s not unusual for college students to become enamored with some particular author – think Marx, Chomsky, Ayn Rand, or Jean-Paul Sartre. For me, it was the sociologist Erving Goffman. To simplify him to the point of caricature, Goffman emphasized that our lives were filled with micro-dramas played out on a social stage. Think of that when you watch the State of the Union, which is perhaps more choreographed than most moments, especially since the advent of television. The night is filled with a theatrical air: from the Sergeant at Arms announcing the arrival of the President, to the dutifully, stony-eyed faces of the Supreme Court Justices and the Joint Chiefs of Staff testifying to the claim that these men and women – if no one else – are above politics, to the parties’ calisthenics routine of applauding and conspicuously failing to rise in turn.

It wouldn’t be too hard to deconstruct the act. Much of what might be written might even have the benefit of being true. But here’s at least one observation that I think is hard to argue with: the State of the Union gives life to the observation that our system of government is based on co-equal branches of government, but one of those branches is more equal than others. After all, though the Congress and the Justices sit to listen, the President marches in to address them as a king.

Bill Livingood, then the Sergeant at Arms for the House of Representatives, announces the arrival of the President in 2011.

Bill Livingood, then the Sergeant at Arms for the House of Representatives, announces the arrival of the President in 2011.

That’s not just my flourish; it’s actually very much what the tradition is based on. In monarchies, it’s de riguer for the monarch to address the legislature once a year. In the UK, for example, the Queen delivers Her Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech at the opening of Parliament, usually outlining the government’s agenda for the coming year. Sound familiar?

It did to Thomas Jefferson, who found the air of monarchy to be so oppressive during the State of the Union that he refused to give it in person. Instead, he delivered his remarks in writing – which is, technically, all that is required of the President. That practice continued until Woodrow Wilson won the White House.

Wilson recognized the advantages of a joint address. Not only can it be an effective use of the bully pulpit by a politician with a captive audience, it also places the President squarely in the role of Head of State as few things during a Presidency can. When the President stands before the collected members of the Congress and declares the State of the Union to be strong, and is then greeted with thunderous applause – can’t you just hear a brief echo in the din: l’état c’est moi…l’état c’est moi…l’état c’est moi…

If you want a sense for how it came to be this way – why an office so purposefully designed to be checked by Congress and the Courts came to be so obviously preeminent – all you have to do is count the seats. If you include the Representatives from American Samoa, Washington DC, the Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, as well as the Resident Commissioner for Puerto Rico and throw in the Vice President in his capacity as President of the Senate, then the legislature fills 541 seats. The Supreme Court is entitled to 9 seats, though it is unlikely to fill them.

The President, of course, stands alone.

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And there it is – the single most important fact about our system of government. Read through the Constitution and you might be temped to believe that Congress has the upper hand. That seems to be what the Framers thought as well. But the President’s power is greatly magnified by the fact that he wields it alone. Can Congress levy taxes, declare war, defund programs, investigate the Executive, and reorganize the courts? Absolutely. But first 51 senators and 218 voting members of the House of Representatives would have to agree about something. Good luck.

For a long time, that has been the President’s trump card: among elected officials, only he can claim to embody the nation or to speak for it. No Speaker of the House could hope to do that, and accordingly, we’re never treated to the sight of a President earnestly applauding a Speaker’s remarks. The Speaker – or heaven forbid, the Senate Majority Leader – is never asked to address the nation in a time of need.

From that lofty perch, though, the Presidency has lost some of its lustre. What else could explain Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-SC) spectacular breech of decorum in 2009, when he shouted to the President, “You lie!”? Or Justice Alito’s conspicuously mouthing the words “not true” in 2010 as the President delivered criticism of how the court ruled in Citizens United?

The truth is that we’ve come a long way since people routinely hung pictures of the President on their walls. Fairly or unfairly, the last three Presidents have been besieged by crises of legitimacy: Bill Clinton had to face down impeachment, George W. Bush was never accepted as rightfully elected by large swaths of the American people, and Barack Obama has been decried as everything from the Muslim Manchurian Candidate to, what’s arguably worst, a socialist.

So here’s the irony: keep the volume off and you’ll see the Presidency in full force, almost even regal. Turn the volume back on and here’s what you’ll hear: a laundry list of policies that will move nowhere in the next year. In 2013, the President called for a rise in the minimum wage and called for action on gun control. Naturally, nothing happened. He also reiterated his administration’s commitment to see Bashar Al-Assad step down in Syria as well as the importance of doing something on climate change. Again, nothing.

That contrast results from the fact that the President’s outsized influence over the future of the country derives less from the powers of his office and more from where he is situated within the landscape of our national discourse. Some men stand in that spotlight and strike a note that resonates with the American people; others simply do not.

In the end, the similarity between the President’s State of the Union and Queen Elizabeth’s Speech from the Throne might be stronger than Barack Obama would like: in 2014, they’ll both provide a lot of pretty pageantry, but probably little else.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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