This is President Barack Obama’s last State of the Union message. Personally, I would have preferred that last year was his last.
Every January, POTUS traipses up to Capitol Hill, and we are treated to a country-come-to-town bit of pageantry. Those in his audience feign interest in a speech they’ve seen in advance, trying to stay awake in case they’re on camera, and wonder when they should applaud. The gamesmanship begins even before the game begins. Some of the members are so desperate for publicity that they stake out aisle seats hours beforehand to try to get seen in the TV coverage giving the equivalent of a high-five as the big guy heads to the front.
Sharing the podium with Vice President Joe Biden this time is a new speaker, Paul Ryan. We can assume he’ll have no problems with his intro: “Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States.” Applause, applause.
Then the speech, complete with the human props each president puts in the balcony, and this year, the empty seat representing all of the victims of American gun violence. As insane as this country’s attachment to personal weaponry is and as perverse as it is that our politicians are the enablers of the arms merchants, the empty chair has become an empty symbol. It’s been done. In fact, all it does is rile up the opposition. Ted Cruz, for instance, suggests it should represent babies killed in abortions. It’s become a cliche that really just demonstrates that our government is largely dysfunctional, which is precisely the opposite of the impression the State of the Union address is trying to convey.
But hey, it’s his last one, and wouldn’t it be great if he cut the pretense and said something like this: “Members of Congress, you disgust me. For my entire presidency you have thwarted progress at almost every turn. You are so beholden to special interests, or so afraid of them, that the United States is a lesser country, and any improvements have come about not because of you, but in spite of you. A lot has been said about my lack of enthusiasm for spending time with you. Well, no wonder. Did I mention you disgust me? But still, I’m going to make one more stab at laying out a minimal agenda to help our nation avoid becoming a backwater.”
Now wouldn’t that get the juices flowing? No longer would Biden and Ryan have the worst job in the world, constantly on camera, pretending they are hanging on every word. Maybe they could get into a fight. And don’t bet on Ryan, although he’s younger and makes such a public big deal about how much he works out. Behind that smile, Biden just might be a brawler, particularly since he’s still upset that he felt that he couldn’t make a run for the No. 1 job himself. A little violence on the dais could make things interesting.
Unfortunately, none of this is going to happen, and it won’t be remotely interesting. It’ll be the same exhibit of political insincerity that always is, with those of us in newsbiz grasping at whatever straws we can. Maybe Marco Rubio will actually show up. (Gasp!) Ted Cruz will not, which is OK since nobody in the Capitol likes him.
Of course, Donald Trump will be heckling from somewhere, at some point tweeting insults. The biggest insult is the event itself. It’s silly and mostly predictable, although South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson will go down in history for hollering “You lie!” at President Obama during the 2009 State of the Union address. One can argue the event is, if not a lie, a contrivance. We are less and less a union. That will again be on full display.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.