Why We Vote
[Note: This essay is one in a continuing series by ICCFA executive director Bob Fells focusing on various issues in our federal government. Although the subjects are political in nature, the approach is bipartisan in outlook, at least so far as that is humanly possible. The goal of each essay is not to persuade the reader to adopt a particular political viewpoint or party, but to illustrate why a knowledge of the system is important to protect our businesses, our homes, and our families.]
What State is the State of the Union In?
The news media hype building up to Election Day mercifully occurs only once every two years. That’s plenty for most of us. But every year before the ink is dry on proclaiming the New Year, we are bombarded with great expectations about the President’s State of the Union Address. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never has so much been written by so many for so little results. Regardless of the President in office at the moment, the fabled State of the Union Address has deteriorated into a wish list that the chief executive of our nation would enact if he could wave a magic wand and get it.
And is there an annual political event that vanishes from the radar screen as quickly as the State of the Union Address? I don’t think so. Why then all the fuss about it? Part of the answer is that January tends to be a “slow” news month so unless the media gets lucky with some catastrophe happening somewhere, the State of the Union speech is like the proverbial “any old port in a storm.” We will probably never go back to the days of James Gordon Bennett, the editor of the New York Herald, who proclaimed that “other newspapers are content to just report the news, but we go out and make it happen.” So the next best thing is to take a predictable event upon which nobody would bet for any surprises, and hype it to the heavens. This point goes back to an earlier piece that I wrote discussing how the news is managed. Whether you’re reading a newspaper or watching the news online or on TV, each story reported is carefully chosen. The first story didn’t become first all by itself. Somebody behind the scenes ordered that it be first. The same for everything else you see, read or hear. Even with 24/7 all news programming, the same half dozen or so stories are constantly recycled until somebody decides otherwise. Remember the hysterical reporting on the Ebola virus towards the end of last year? This illness continues to be a real threat but the news media collectively got tired of milking this story and it disappeared overnight.
Most stories come up unexpectedly but the State of the Union Address has a wonderful predictability that the media can plan on well in advance. Not to be boorish but does anybody remember anything from last year’s speech? In recent times, the most memorable State of the Union speech was given by Bill Clinton in early 1996. That’s the one where he announced, “The era of Big Government is over.” That statement made banner headlines around the world for days afterwards. Little noted was that President Clinton then proposed five or six new Big Government programs before his speech ended. It was speculated that 1996 being a Presidential election year, Clinton was shoring up some voter support by his Reaganesque declaration.
But that was nearly twenty years ago and we’ve had a generation of forgettable speeches billed as “history-making” since then. To be fair, the State of the Union Address is constitutionally required of the President to keep the Congress advised of events. But Wolf Blitzer could do that. No, the State of the Union has become a sort of report card on how the Administration is doing. This is not unlike asking a student to grade his school work. Unless he or she happens to be a straight-A student, the report might be somewhat skewed, if not fanciful. The speech is filled with campaign rhetoric and this tends to work out well for those particular Presidents who are better suited to run for office than actually serve in office. We won’t mention any names but you know who they are. Some Presidents use the speech to complain about Congress blocking some of their legislation. In 1975, Gerry Ford literally begged Congress for funding to keep North Vietnam from moving into South Vietnam, per the peace treaty that ended the combat. The Congress refused to budge and it was only then that South Vietnam fell to the Communists. It now seems to be a footnote in history that we won that war but lost the peace. At any rate, the State of the Union rarely delivers on the much vaunted expectations and last night’s speech was no exception. The Address is not unlike an employee filling out an evaluation on his or her job performance. The difference is that the boss can disagree with the employee and take appropriate action. The only thing most Americans can do in the wake of the State of the Union Address is to forget about it.