The State of the Union is a spectacle, superfluous, surreal. Hours before President Obama was to address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, judgment had already been rendered on the meaning of the event, or rather the lack of meaning.
This year’s meme is that, with the invite of “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson as the guest of Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.), the State of the Union had devolved into something resembling the annual White House Correspondents Assn. dinner. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), eager to establish his conservative bonafides and fend off a primary challenge, posted a pic with his guest, Robertson’s wife Korie, proving that the comparison may actually be turning out to be more than a quip. Meanwhile, Fox News host Sean Hannity was attending as the guest of Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), making for an interesting situation as competing cable news networks thrive on reaction shots.
All of this is a reminder of how forgettable the speech can be. Last year’s State of the Union, on the heels of Obama’s second inaugural, was heavy in passages about gun violence, in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Then legislation stalled in Congress. Now it seems like a distant memory.
Some of President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union addresses were more memorable for their length, sometimes stretching for more than an hour, or the political backdrop in which they were given. When he spoke to Congress in 1998, most of the attention was on the unfolding Monica Lewinsky scandal, which was, to be sure, not brought up in the luandry list of items on the national agenda. This year, Obama is expected to address income inequality, although there is skepticism as to whether major efforts like hiking the minimum wage will go very far with a divided Congress.
So as much as sideshows are populating the pre-SOTU commentary, searching for sorts of meaning out of this event, more than likely the stakes for this Obama speech really won’t be all that great.