If President Joe Biden were truly honest in his annual televised address, he might have said something like this:
“The State of our Union is divided, politically, culturally and between the uber rich and everyone else; it’s worried about a possible recession; self-estranged over guns; and slipping deeper into confrontation with two nuclear superpowers. And it really doesn’t want to see another election contest between myself and Donald Trump.”
But of course, the theatrics of the State of the Union address and his own political requirements mean that Biden -- between incessant standing ovations from his own side of the House chamber -- must proclaim America stronger than ever.
The rituals that play out year after year, after the House Sergeant at Arms bellows “Mr Speaker, the President of the United States” beg the question of whether the huge attention given to these addresses is over the top. Presidents are actually only required by the Constitution to deliver to Congress information on the state of the union from “time to time.” Presidents for generations only delivered written updates to Congress, until Woodrow Wilson decided to reinstate the in-person address in 1913. Later in the television age, savvy commanders-in-chief understood the huge opportunity of a captive audience of millions of viewers at home.
The State of the Union address has become a bit of a political cliche — but it still offers a rare chance for a President to speak to the nation in prime-time across all TV networks without interruption or questions from pesky journalists. With the splintering of media in the 21st century, the White House typically streams the speech online and swamps social media with soundbites. It remains a big event — though viewing figures will pale in comparison to the numbers of Americans tuning into the other annual winter ritual — the Super Bowl on Sunday.
Given America's politically fractured condition, it'd be asking too much for the State of the Union address to unite the nation. Especially this year, for the first time in his presidency, Biden will be in a House chamber run by Republicans, following the party’s narrow win in the midterm elections last year. Pundits are framing this State of the Union as the unofficial kick off of Biden’s reelection campaign. He is expected to tout his quite impressive legislative record, send a message of US resolve toward Russia over the war in Ukraine and to China following last week’s spy balloon crisis, and to subtly make the point that if many Americans are still feeling uncertain and hurting economically, things would be far worse under the Republican Party.
One reason why Presidents like the State of the Union: It's one moment in the year when they can bask in the ceremony of their office and are shown the respect that is fleeting in bitter modern day politics. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has promised his side will live up to the dignity of the occasion and avoid political stunts that could play into Democratic characterizations of the “Make America Great Again” crowd as unhinged extremists. He's also promised not to tear up his paper copy of Biden's speech -- as former Democratic speaker Nancy Pelosi once did after one of Trump's addresses. That’s great, though this is the same McCarthy who in 2021 voted not to certify the president's election victory over false voter fraud claims, so he may not be one to talk about respecting America’s political institutions.
Biden will also have to confront a dubious distinction — as the first 80-year-old to deliver a State of the Union address — and so is under pressure to show vigor and coherence as he asks Americans to begin to think about handing him another term.
While much of the State of the Union hoopla seems hackneyed, it does serve an important, and unseen function. As draft after draft is passed between the White House and government departments, for weeks before the big night, an administration gets to assess what it has done and where it needs to go next. It’s a rare chance to regroup and tighten focus amid the rush of events, crises and political kerfuffles that can easily consume a presidency.
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