Nuances of the State of the Union

Every political circus has its rules. Here are some of ours.

Obama SOTU

I must be a fool because every time I watch the State of the Union, I am surprised by the amount of clapping there is. Watching the speech in another country makes it feel all the more ridiculous and choreographed. I imagine that Brits feel similarly about the shouts and sneers that erupt in the House of Commons.

I remember a few years back when I was a special education middle school teacher in the Bronx, when a visitor from another district remarked to me how “chaotic” the school seemed. It took me a moment to realize that he was obviously right, that I had been desensitized to the spectacle that was my little world then. The State of the Union deals with a much larger universe but the ritual dance and clap that guides our elected and appointed officials on the night, like so many other nights in the political pageant that is Washington, speaks to the way in which we manage to thrive and fail as a country.

If I’ve lost you, allow me to point out a few tics and slips and dog whistles that let us know that our politicians know full well that they are putting on a show. It’s just the rules of the game. I can only wonder how often they practice their postures and reactions, but I can say with confidence that although they might not think we’re stupid, they act as though we are. Perhaps only such an arrangement will do – otherwise, we will be forced to confront some hard to digest contradictions in the system.

I’ll refer to points in the following video that warrant a moment of pause. 

First of all is the setup. It’s almost as if the seating arrangement was designed to allow the television viewers the ability to keep a clapping scorecard between the Vice President and the Speaker of the House. In an hour long speech, one can’t help but look over the president’s shoulder to gauge their reactions like a political litmus test. Unlike the rest of the chamber, these two must always stay awake and serve as their party’s billboard for agreeing with and disagreeing with whatever the President has jut said. Should I feel bad for having watched almost the entirety of the speech listening to Obama but looking at Boehner?

Starting at about 1:25, the VP and the Speaker assume their default settings – confident smile and determined scowl (is it me or does Vice President Biden have zero white in his eyes?). About 10 seconds later, the entire chamber stands to applaud the troops returning home because not doing so would mean that you are against the troops and worthy of impeachment and deportation. On numerous occasions, the speaker clapped when he had no choice – more domestic energy production, more manufacturing jobs and efforts to be bipartisan (whatever that means).

The first awkward moment came at 13:40 when Obama more or less repeated what had just garnered a standing ovation moments earlier. A few folks in the audience began clapping, but the weakness of the reaction was just strange. Between 14:15 and 14:20, it appears as though Speaker Boehner both farts and then burps while the president goes on about domestic jobs.

At 15:37 Obama talks about “shitting jobs for more than ten years”. I am not kidding. I’ll have to do some more research and get back to you all on what that means. At 33:45 Obama condescendingly referenced the need to support “our wives, our mothers (and) our daughters” as though the government was run entirely by men and that through their own magnanimous virtues, they would extend some help to the women who are waiting daintily on the political sidelines.

At 35:43, just after Obama asked Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $9/hour, Boehner looks over to Biden and gives a conspicuous smile that basically said “you gotta be kidding me…good luck with that”. Starting at 52:20, the President took the chamber to its emotional summit, which culminates in the sort of soaring voice and response that introduced him to most of us eight years ago.

Without a doubt though, my favorite moment of the night came after Obama’s speech. From 1:14:06 to 1:14:13 Marco Rubio smiles for what is the most hilarious pre-speech stance I have ever seen. The most talked about moment of the night though was when Rubio reached over to take a sip of water. Sounds pretty innocuous, but you have to watch it to understand. Start watching at around 1:24:20 and you can see Rubio desperately try to get by with just the saliva in his mouth.

In the end I feel bad for the guy because he was derailed by something so simple as thirst. You can see the pain in his eyes. It was just a sip of water but so rich in content on matters of presentation and form. But like I said, poor guy; he can now join Bobby Jindal and Michelle Bachman in the list of recent State of the Union response flubbers.

If you’ve read this far, you can understand why the politicians go through the motions and put on the show. Until we stop being an audience, they will continue to perform.

A year from now, after dozens more posts and countless more conversations, I will sit down and watch President Obama deliver his sixth State of the Union speech. I will expect our politicians to beat around the bush and make promises they know will never come to fruition, but I’ll never get used to the clapping.


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