Get that popcorn ready, people. It’s State of the Union week!
Already, I can hear some of you grumbling: Nope. No way I’m blowing my Tuesday night on that snoozefest when there are episodes of “The Last of Us” to rewatch.
I get the lack of enthusiasm. It’s tempting to dismiss the president’s annual address to Congress as old-fashioned, heavy-handed political theater — largely because it is old-fashioned, heavy-handed political theater. You’ve got the stuffy setting, the strict staging, the meticulous scripting, the hackneyed performances and even the occasional audience member nodding off — either from boredom or because they liquored up before the show.
But this does not mean that the State of the Union, more adorably known as SOTU, is empty political theater. Far from it — especially this year, when there is so much real-life drama to watch for. With President Biden assumed to be gearing up for a re-election run, he will be test driving issues and messages with campaign potential. What will resonate — or not? Having finally groveled his way into the speaker of the House’s seat just behind the president, how will Kevin McCarthy comport himself on this big night, especially if his members start getting balky? This will be the first SOTU for the Supreme Court justices after the conservative majority torpedoed the constitutional right to abortion last summer. Will Mr. Biden mention their ruling? Will they register a response? Will there be any points in this speech for which both congressional teams applaud? Who will deign to sit with the House’s new serial fabulist, George Santos? And will Representative Matt Gaetz be so characteristically obnoxious that his Republican colleague Mike Rogers comes at him again, as happened during last month’s historically awkward election for speaker?
The entire spectacle is an elaborate exercise in political signaling by the president, his congressional allies, the opposition and even bit players like the Supremes. Every clap, grimace and eye roll tells us something about the prevailing mood among the nation’s top leaders — and the level of discord and dysfunction we can look forward to in the coming months.
One question that always carries with it a frisson of unease during big presidential addresses: On a scale of 1 to Lauren Boebert, how disrespectfully will members of the opposing party behave? Normally, the out party is content to express its disagreement by withholding applause — or vaguely grumbling. But you never know when someone will go big, as when Representative Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, shrieked “You lie!” at President Barack Obama during a September 2009 speech before a joint session of Congress. Or last year, when Ms. Boebert, the pride of Colorado, interrupted a somber part of Mr. Biden’s SOTU to holler something about him putting service members in coffins. (Stay classy, Lauren!)
Of course, when it comes to throwing low-key SOTU shade, it would be tough to top Nancy Pelosi’s condescending opera clap at President Donald Trump in 2019, not to mention her ripping up a copy of his speech in 2020. (The former speaker really, really doesn’t like “whatshisname,” as she delights in calling him.)
This time, anything feels possible. Tuesday will be Mr. Biden’s first appearance before the Republican-controlled House, and with MAGA wing nuts dominating the conference. Will the chaos monkeys be on their best behavior, or will the compulsion to act out prove overwhelming? Notably, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has been engaged in a brand makeover of late, dialing down the crazy and snuggling up to leadership in an effort to sell herself as an intraconference bridge builder. This new stab at quasi respectability could have her playing nicer than usual, if for no other reason than to avoid embarrassing her new BFF, Mr. McCarthy. Alternatively, Mr. Biden could be lucky to make it through Tuesday night without being spattered in rotten produce — at least metaphorically.
When it comes to the president’s policy wish list portion of the speech, there’s no point sweating the details, especially this year. House Republicans have made clear that they plan to spend their time in power investigating everything from Mr. Biden’s foreign policy decisions to his grade school report cards. So even pressing legislative matters with bipartisan appeal will likely languish.
Even so, the president needs to lay out his vision. He is expected to make clear his re-election intentions very soon, and the SOTU is seen by many as an early pitch for a second term. Mr. Biden will likely walk people through some of his prouder achievements thus far, on issues from infrastructure to climate change to gun safety. This is also his moment to give his take on a host of hot-button issues such as inflation, the debt ceiling, gun violence, the war in Ukraine and police reform. (Among the event’s invited guests are the parents of Tyre Nichols, the Memphis man whose death after a brutal beating by the police has horrified the nation.)
Most basically, with all the chatter about the president’s age and fitness, Mr. Biden needs to come across in a way that reassures people he is still up for this job, for the next two and possibly six years. Because it’s not just the opposition fretting over the question.
The SOTU may not rank as the week’s most electrifying televisual experience. But it has plenty to offer, especially for anyone concerned about the health and well-being of American democracy. And who knows? Maybe we’ll luck out and The Talented Mr. Santos will show up posing as a character from “White Lotus.” That would really set the tone for the evening.
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