A better alternative to the State of the Union Address tradition

Like everything else in Washington, the State of the Union Address has become a meaningless, broken tradition. Photo: Tim Sloan / AP File Photo

HONOLULU, February 12, 2013 — Lately so many American traditions, like tonight’s State of the Union Address, are becoming a burden and little more than empty political theater. President Barack Obama and Florida Senator Marco Rubio are both charismatic orators and superstars of their respective parties who no doubt will both say everything the left and right of America’s political establishment want to hear. But the “real” State of our Union is something that no elected official could possibly articulate because tonight is all about telling the world how the left and right demand America should be, not how it actually is.

No matter what President Obama or Senator Rubio say tonight, they will both readily find allies in the media and on K Street who will say they were bold, courageous, independent, idealistic and visionary while simultaneously criticizing the other’s speech as unimpressive, cowardly, partisan, dishonest and business as usual. No matter what is promised tonight, both left and right will benefit because their speaker will reinforce everything they have come to believe about their worldview and desires for America. The real condition of our United States of America will go unnoticed, unspoken and unattended as it has been for decades – maybe even centuries – because America only hears politics but not truth from Washington.

The Constitution tells us in Article II, Section 3 that the President “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” If we are to believe our high school civics classes, the State of the Union serves as an opportunity for the President to be transparent about where the rubber met the road in implementing the laws passed by Congress and to frankly discuss the difference between the intended consequences of policy and the unintended consequences of law. The President, ideally, recommends ways to improve where America’s policies fell short.

But when was the last time a President from either party, let alone any elected official at all, actually admitted that America had fallen short on his watch? Every President has always said “the state of our union is strong” – but how truthful of a statement is that these days? Is our union really strong, or are we just saying that? What would the average American actually say about the State of the Union? Symbol without substance is empty and useless.

This is no reason to amend the Constitution, but maybe a better idea is to make the State of the Union Address something worth looking forward to.

Instead of the President going year after year to a joint session of Congress filled with people who have already made up their minds – some of whom will sleep through it – why not make the State of the Union like jury duty, where a computer randomly selects one ordinary American who is given the task of speaking on whichever topic of national concern he or she feels should be discussed before Congress.

It would be much more interesting to hear what the young single mother working as a waitress or the car mechanic struggling to pay his rent as well as the cost of his ever-increasing health insurance feels about the state of America than to listen to a professional politician wearing an expensive suit, maroon tie and a flag lapel pin.

We might learn something about the true condition of America’s national security from a Marine who was on the frontlines carrying a hundred pounds of gear on his back implementing the “foreign policy” of elected officials. We could hear what the real economy is like from a factory worker whose job went to China, or from a 22-year old who graduated at the top of her class with a degree that won’t get her entry-level employment because everyone says she still needs “more work experience.”

We could hear about America from real Americans.

It’s probably an unrealistic fantasy to hope that we could ever hear an average person speak to a joint session of Congress, but there is nothing stopping our elected leaders right now from going out into their districts and individual communities and actually listening to their constituents, not just the special interests, not just the campaign contributors. If they had listened to the ordinary people in the first place, I doubt they’d have bailed out the banks, sent so many young people to war, and taken away so many civil liberties over the last few years.

America will be great again when our politicians stop talking and start listening again.


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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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