I realize that many of my partisan friends will find this to be a partisan comment - but it is not meant that way. I listened to the President tonight and to the response given by the GOP and found both statements at best banal. The list of priorities that the President outlined and that came in the GOP response seemed like what one good friend describes as "legislative kabuki" - not much of the list is likely to be adopted. And more importantly a lot of the rhetorical points seem more bound in beginning to score points for November 2014 than to improve the chances that we would actually move forward on some key agenda items.
This tradition has a checkered history. It began because of a constitutional requirement - Article II section 3 requires the President to periodically report to Congress on the state of the union - but beginning with Jefferson - many of our greatest presidents chose to offer only written comments. Wilson brought the speech process back and almost every president since then has seen it as a chance to make a big speech. But as John Walker argued it has become a "tedious relic." John Walker was not the first to make this call - during Bush II several commentators made the same suggestion.
I think what bothers me most is that it has become an opportunity for Washington to demonstrate its arrogance that what happens there actually is critical to the rest of us. In reality there seems to be a pattern which is too utterly predictable - the President (who ever is in office) claims responsibility for everything that is good (even though the claim is absurd) and then tries to blame everything that is bad against his opponents; he then lays out a laundry list of proposals and makes some rhetorical points that can be picked up later; he then makes one or more attempts to show how connected he is by introducing props who support his underlying points (I think Reagan began this practice) and then he "blesses America" and signs off.
Soon after the opposition gets the chance to make a statement - which is often not actually responsive to what the President has said. In good years the SOTU gets forgotten quickly. The President may or may not be successful in advancing an agenda and in rallying the troops in even numbered years. But the whole things seems horribly self congratulatory. The President, and for that matter most members of Congress, remain in a bubble. They have little understanding or appreciation of what it actually takes to make the economy grow.
One issue of theory here is important and it comes from the architecture of the Congress versus the House of Commons. In Commons the opposing groups are actually arrayed so as to confront each other at least visually on a daily basis. Our Congress has none of that - and so much of what passes for discussion and debate is stylized drivel. The point I am making is that I think the SOTU and its response is more of the same. We all realize that neither statement is likely to be helpful in improving the public understanding of possibilities for changes in policy and that (perhaps more importantly) even with the bones thrown out in tonight's speech - that the partisan divide will be diminished in the least.
What interests me is what might happen if a president in the future were to have a bit more humility and started from the premise that his job was to get things done rather than score points. He might draft a statement which proposed some ideas for policies and then actually engage with some real people about those ideas. Most of the political operatives would think that would be immensely risky - but I think the American people who have to vote for these people might actually find it refreshing. Both sides then might spend some time doing two things - first, they might actually try to engage the American people not in sound bites but in a substantive discussion about policy alternatives and (as importantly) they might actually begin to work on figuring out what they had in common.