Where have you gone, Rutherford B. Hayes?

The President gets to play rock star once a year with the Vice-President and the Speaker of the House as his rhythm section

Where have you gone, Rutherford B. Hayes

(AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

I have the same reaction to every State of the Union address. It’s a vicarious Catonian revulsion, the grief and horror of the old Roman. (I’m a monarchist, but I’m a monarchist for us.) As everyone writing on the occasion of a SOTU observes, the president’s traditional harangue to the houses of Congress is said to be licensed by Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution:

[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.

Even hard-bitten originalists tend to read this passage for sonority rather than meaning. All it says is that the President must furnish data to Congress and suggest legislative activity. It doesn’t say anything about doing so annually, though that became the habit almost immediately. It doesn’t say anything about giving information and advice in the form of a speech, let alone presenting oneself to Congress. Early presidents did so, but Thomas Jefferson pulled a face and refused to play ball. He fretted that a knockoff of Westminsterian Throne Speeches would “familiarize the public with monarchical ideas”, and he didn’t want representatives of the other branches of government to be intimidated by the person of the chief magistrate.

The presidents of the 19th century believed that this was an excellent and sensible precedent, and sent their “annual messages” to the legislature in writing. At least one (Hayes) wondered whether even a written dispatch was appropriate to the republican spirit and to the nature of his office. To a man, they would have been horrified at the spectacle of a President pugnaciously dressing down a Supreme Court, as Obama did last night in his animadversion upon the Citizens United ruling.

Even dear old Justice Ginsburg seemed nonplussed and disapproving, though no doubt she seems much the same way when she’s watering plants or eating a sandwich. I was hoping for Chief Justice Roberts to rise to his feet and lead the black-robed group right out of the building. Better still, perhaps, if they’d just dispersed in all directions like a murder of crows startled by a gunshot.

The idea of the “State of the Union address” was revived by the tyrannical, warmongering racist Woodrow Wilson, that infallible guide to the inadvisable. Wilson could have cited the model of the pre-Jeffersonian presidents, but as Jeffrey Tulis points out in a tart footnote in his book The Rhetorical Presidency, he didn’t restore the SOTU institution to its original form: the proto-SOTUs of Washington and Adams were followed by replies from both Houses and further counter-retorts from the chief executive. In other words, the SOTU as implemented by the revolutionary generation was a republican dialogue, not a kingly incantation.

Nowadays, the President gets to play rock star once a year with the Vice-President and the Speaker of the House as his rhythm section. (Though any bar-band bass player who upstaged his frontman with deranged mugging as often as Nancy Pelosi does would quickly find himself in a back-alley dumpster with a Rickenbacker colonoscopy.) But there is certainly one advantage in having him confront the legislature and the judiciary in person: it exposes him to laughter. Obama, who is unbelievably relaxed and cool on the highest occasions of state, deliberately invited some of it. But the very audible chuckling which greeted his mention of “the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change” was surely neither anticipated nor welcome.

I like Barack Obama, considering him strictly as a performer. Indeed, I already have an embarrassing printed history of vulnerability to his speaking style, despite my allergy to his politics.  I pretty much fell for the Jeremiah Wright damage-control speech; I fell for the Cairo speech on Islam. When I read that Obama’s first SOTU was expected to come in at 70 minutes, I cringed, thinking of the tangle-tongued G.W. Bush and the endless pandering shout-outs of Bill Clinton. In the event, Obama easily broke 80 minutes, but I was never conscious of making an effort to pay attention until the very last bit, when he wandered from policy and worked extra-hard to drive home the Clintonian message that he feels everybody’s pain.

His obnoxious, promiscuous pan-sympathizing reminded me of a quote his advisor Valerie Jarrett gave to ABC News a few days ago while “previewing” the speech:

He’ll be able to set forth his priorities, and they will be focusing on the middle class. Our middle class is struggling out there. They’re frustrated, they’re angry, they’re working hard to try to make ends meet. They’re having to make terrible choices between paying their rent and putting food on the table and paying for their health care and sending their kids to college. These are the same principles that the president advocated in the course of the campaign.

There aren’t any “principles” in that quote at all, just descriptions of suffering. Indeed, a Haitian asked to consider the “terrible choices” faced by Americans would probably say it wasn’t really suffering at all—just childish resentment at the mere existence of economic scarcity. (I understand that there’s a recession on, but what prior generation of Americans didn’t have to struggle to realize its ambitions? When have the non-rich not faced difficult choices and opportunity costs?) Apparently the word “principle” may now be regarded, not as a term denoting permanent maxims of action, but as a fine-sounding synonym for “feelings”.

Well, Barack Obama couldn’t literally feel one percent of the combined emotional force of American insecurities and dreads, or he’d keel over dead. What he really hopes to do, when he starts spinning anecdotes about the letters he’s received and the people he’s talked to, is to convince us that he has somehow integrated those feelings intellectually. Yet I wonder if he has, when I hear him say that Americans are more alike in their fears than in their practical circumstances. Though they “have different backgrounds, different stories, different beliefs,” he said, “the anxieties they face are the same.”

The president has a low-BS rhetorical style, but this is high-octane BS, as you can tell by applying the most quick-‘n’-easy litmus test for political BS I know of: ask yourself “What if he had said the exact opposite?” Nearly all Americans regard themselves as being part of a shared historical narrative, on whose chief points they mostly agree. They are very alike in their core political beliefs, stated and unstated. When compared to most of the human race and all of the human past, they are alike in being inconceivably well-off. Where they differ is precisely in their anxieties.

Surely, after all, it’s our anxieties, to at least some degree, that make us vote for different political candidates. We’re all opposed to crime and terrorism and injustice and prejudice and pollution; we may disagree on the specific solutions, but we also disagree on which of these things we need to worry about RIGHT NOW. The debate over health insurance reform—with one side conjuring images of an army of outcast fellow-citizens enfeebled by pestilence, and the other yelping about death panels and creeping socialism—could not demonstrate this more clearly. Until Obama can emerge from solipsism and really put himself inside the minds of people who haven’t yet voted for him, he may remain, at best, half a leader.

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