Mitch was mildly positive, Joni stuck to traditional values and refused to get into a dogfight over policy proposals, and Curt, as in Florida freshman Clawson, was relaxed and not a bit angry. Obama had headed to the podium practically bouncing on his toes and pumped and swinging, but the GOP – whether the elite, the new faces, or the rebels – seemed not to be taking the bait. While liberal commentators like Slate’s Josh Voorhees sneered at Joni Ernst’s lack of specific talking points on Obama’s proposals in her response, is that such a bad thing? Do we really need a detailed drag-em-out knuckle buster over statistics that might relate to a proposed law that goodness-knows-what it will look like when and if it survives Congress’ committees? Is the whole partisan process of arguing over how Washington should fix everyone’s lives the only noble response to the latest SOTU address?

As the constitution dictates, the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” There is no specific requirement that it be in the form a speech and for over a century it was in writing after Jefferson broke with Washington and sent a written report rather than speak before Congress the way Washington had in 1790. He felt the giving of a speech was too similar to a Speech from the Throne and the shackles of monarchy were still vivid in the nation’s collective imagination and certainly in Jefferson’s cautious avoidance of the trappings of monarchism. But the theatrical potential and the ritual proved too tempting, especially with radio offering new opportunities, so Woodrow Wilson brought back the speech in 1913. Whether the current practice of the SOTU address obliges a measure of accountability can be argued for and certainly against. In a representative democracy, the only real accountability -aside from the odd impeachment – comes on election night. So perhaps the real relevance of the State of the Union address is it can reveal the character of the president himself, and rarely the one hoped for by the Chief Executive. The policy pronouncements and their partisan details are soon forgotten, but the tone remains a little longer in the public memory, to the extent that people care about SOTU. Obama revealed that he really does know what’s best for the middle class and the rest of America, and he has a stack of taxpayer-subsidized plans to prove it, and a veto pen if you disagree with him. The GOP will need to formulate a core of clear policy proposals as they move towards 2016, but wonking back at the President over policy on a January night is a tactic they were right to avoid.

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