Do you remember the first gimmick you saw on a reality show? After years of watching strangers living together, just being “real,” MTV realized the only way to keep the viewers attention was to have the roommates start a business. When “Survivor” got stale they started kicking people off in pairs, then launched the all- star versions. And most recently, once everybody realized that winning a job with “the Donald” was a sham, The Apprentice added celebrities, because it’s more fun to watch Keisha Knight Pulliam stumble over Cosby-related questions than it is to wonder if any of these celebs could run a business.
The State of the Union has turned into a primetime television show gimmick, where catch phrases, special guest stars and new media are all brought in to prop up a dying franchise. And why is the State of the Union on life support? Because despite a few high points last night, Americans know that little of what is said in the State of the Union will ever become law.
Was it impressive that President Obama mentioned the transgender community? Definitely. Was it a not-so-subtle shout out to protesters when President Obama said “…Your Lives Matter?” Most assuredly. President Obama also laid out several ambitious policies including making community college free, expanding paid sick leave, childcare opportunities as well as improving healthcare technology access and ending tax loopholes. While symbolically nice, almost none of these proposals will be turned into law by this Congress. The State of the Union is like hearing the Dad in Chief’s Christmas wish list when we all know he’s only going to get socks.
It’s easy to just blame that on the Republicans in Congress but the truth is that increasing partisanship in Washington has made it more difficult for all presidents to accomplish their State of the Union agendas. For example, in 2006 George W. Bush proposed 70,000 new teachers specializing in science and math, and research on turning grass into ethanol fuel. Dead on arrival. Bill Clinton’s proposals for state ID’s for firearms and the line item veto never went anywhere either.
President Obama and the GOP controlled house and Senate both agree that tax loopholes should be closed but don’t agree on what a loophole is. The president has been threatening to veto the Keystone pipeline and any harsher Iranian sanctions for over a year. So when new policy proposals are dead, and old ones are already known, the press is often left to come up with quirky thought pieces like State of the Union report cards, and breakdowns of the best and worst jokes from the president in order to keep the show interesting. These are all relatively new attempts to revitalize the State of the Union franchise from sagging ratings and an attempt to desperately engage the social media generation.
The White House, likely aware of how droll the entire experience has become, decided to follow up this year’s State of the Union with interviews by YouTube celebrities, including a green haired sista comedian who says she prepared for the interview by watching episodes of VEEP. There’s even a White House website dedicated to the ‘special guest stars’ in the gallery with the First Lady who are prepped for interviews. I can’t quite say that the State of the Union has jumped the shark yet, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if Obama was wearing skis beneath the podium.
For one crucial moment, President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union was “on fleek.” He went HAM. He brought the pain. And he pretty much ethered the entire Republican House and Senate in one line: I Know Cause I Won Both of Them. This was a response to the Republican caucus sarcastically clapping when President Obama said that he couldn’t run for president again. That line will almost certainly get the Antoine Dodson remix treatment sooner or later. Which is a shame, because that will probably be the lasting impression of this year’s State of the Union.
If it is going to be a show perhaps in his final year Obama should switch it up a bit. He could turn the State of the Union into a Q&A like the British Parliament hosts “Prime Minister’s Questions”, or pull a Liddy Dole and walk through the gallery. If for the time being we’re going to get a show then give us the show, and more than just a few one liners.
We can only hope for the sake of Democracy that after the 2016 elections a more functional government will return the State of the Union from a wish list sold with gimmicks to a real game-plan for how to manage our nation. In the meantime, somebody better call the biohazard team – there’s still some ether in the Congressional gallery.