What does it say about the State of the Union address when the biggest story to come out of it involves Florida Sen. Marco Rubio having awkwardly reached for a bottle of water while delivering the official GOP response? It says the speech has become a giant "nothing burger," that's what it says.
The president of the United States, any president, has a constitutional obligation to report to the Congress occasionally on the "state of the union." There is, as my bloleague and editor Robert Schlesinger has written repeatedly, no requirement that he deliver it in person. Indeed for almost 150 years, from Thomas Jefferson through William Howard Taft the speech was transmitted to Capitol Hill in writing. It was only with the entry into the White House of Woodrow Wilson, who wanted to start a strong chord with Congress and the public in kicking off the progressive expansion of the federal government that the speech was once again delivered in person.
As Tuesday night's address by Barack Obama amply demonstrated, the event has become a parody of itself. To recall a shopworn cliché, it is now all "sound and fury signifying nothing." The policy proposals were crafted to appeal to political constituency groups, the members of Congress in attendance were bathed in a glow of mock civility, and the media contingent offered breathless and admiring commentary on remarks that will be quickly forgotten. In short, everyone involved was playing for the balcony which, in this case, is the American people.
Obama has moved, openly, dramatically, and it should be said, predictably, to the left. Congress is not seriously interested in anything the president is going to send them; indeed he is more the lackey of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi than their leader. And the members of the "commentariat" are already playing the politics of the 2016 race for president. Having already chosen their candidates—former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democrats and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for the Republicans—they have taken it upon themselves to check and block any other possible contenders. How else does one explain the hours of time and thousands of words devoted to Rubio's all too human need for a sip of water while making an important speech? Had Obama done the same we would no doubt have been subjected to a warm, loving, vocal embrace of his demonstration of his humanity and the way in which it reinforced his relationship with "the common man."
The State of the Union address used to be important. It has not been so for some time. Part of this is because of the evolution of American politics. Part of it is because of the proliferation of outlets and commentators in the media and the need for a new big story every hour on the hour in order to hold attention and viewers. It's a nice tradition that, to properly honor it, should be retired … at least for a while.