This Tuesday, a joint session of Congress and those Americans who bother to tune in will be subjected to a presidential infomercial. The State of the Union address, required by the Constitution, once launched government policies and clarified national goals. Today, the event is little more than a pep rally with obligatory standing ovations.
There is no proscribed method in the Constitution for how the State of the Union should be delivered to Congress. Until Woodrow Wilson chose to deliver an address in person in 1913, presidents usually just sent letters to Capitol Hill at the beginning of the year. Why not convert this relic into a useful tool that would invigorate American democracy and engage a disengaged electorate?
Let’s upgrade the State of the Union to something like “prime minister’s questions”: In parliamentary systems, this is when a prime minister responds in person to elected representatives, usually in a live broadcast. By adopting this format, President Barack Obama could stage a captivating event that the American electorate would find far more interesting.
What passes for our political dialogue — surrogates and talking heads — encourages little more than bluster. Direct questions to the president by elected representatives could do much to rekindle our democratic spirit. This wouldn’t need to be a circus: Disrupting the dignity of the event with flippant or ridiculous comments could lead to excoriation, as we have seen in the past. Remember that after he shouted “You lie” during Obama’s 2009 State of the Union, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., was rebuked by the House and apologized. In 2010, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was criticized after mouthing “Not true” during the address. There have been stinging repercussions when audience members have strayed outside the bounds of decorum, leading us to believe that propriety would abide in a Q&A.