State of the Union Bipartisan Seating Made a Difference

It was symbolic, but symbolism matters.

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It was a show. A charade, arguably. A public relations ploy that was all about trying to look bipartisan in the wake of the Tucson tragedy, without the true substance of cross-party cooperation behind it.

And I still loved it.

After so many years of watching the State of the Union address--an event that should be about the future of the nation--descend into a partisan, kindergarten-esque display that underscores our divisions instead of our commonalities, it was actually very refreshing to see members of Congress voluntarily paired up to watch the speech with someone from the opposing party. [Read a brief history of the State of the Union addresses.]

There were Sens. John Kerry and John McCain and Reps. Peter King and Anthony Weiner. Cable TV and tweets made fun of the “prom date” setup, but it made a difference, even if just for an hour. It was symbolic, but symbolism matters. And it does have the effect of controlling lawmakers somewhat: it's harder to engage in mob-like behavior when you're not seated together in a gang to begin with.

And in Obama's speech, as well, the absence of certain elements is as telling as the presence of others. It was refreshing to hear the back-to-basics message the president sent, talking about the importance of investing in both the physical and intellectual infrastructure of the nation--building blocks, both literal and figurative, that have been neglected for far too long. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

And while earlier States of the Union, given by presidents in both parties, were packed with a laundry list of items, Obama's speech was broader-brush in tone. Instead of sounding like an address written by lobbyists paid handsomely to get a mention, even just a few words, for a project or priority pushed by their clients, Obama's speech was more general. In that sense, it was more honest, as well, since so many of the specific initiatives presidents so confidently propose in their States of the Union never get passed anyway. Republicans and Democrats alike are right to wonder how the “investments” will be paid for, given the president's rightful mention of the deficit and debt. But at least we didn't have to endure a payoff to lobbyists masked as a national address. [Take the U.S. News poll: Was Obama's State of the Union Speech a Success?]

  • Read A Brief History of the State of the Union.
  • See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.
  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.