Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an adjunct professor of security studies at Georgetown University. Doug Brooks is president emeritus of the International Stability Operations Association and serves on the board of directors of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce.
This Tuesday, a joint session of Congress and those Americans who bother to tune in will be subjected to a presidential infomercial. The State of the Union address, required by the Constitution, once launched government policies and clarified national goals. Today, the event is little more than a pep rally with obligatory standing ovations.
There is no proscribed method in the Constitution for how the State of the Union should be delivered to Congress. Indeed, until Woodrow Wilson chose to deliver an address in person in 1913, presidents usually just sent letters to Capitol Hill at the beginning of the year. Why not convert this relic into a useful tool that would invigorate American democracy and engage a disengaged electorate?
Let’s upgrade the State of the Union to something like “prime minister’s questions”: In parliamentary systems, this is when a prime minister responds in person to elected representatives, usually in a live broadcast. By adopting this format, President Obama could stage a captivating event that the American electorate would find far more interesting.
What passes for our political dialogue — surrogates and talking heads — encourages little more than bluster. Direct questions to the president by elected representatives could do much to rekindle our democratic spirit. This wouldn’t need to be a circus: Disrupting the dignity of the event with flippant or ridiculous comments could lead to excoriation, as we have seen in the past. Remember that after he shouted “You lie!” during Obama’s 2009 State of the Union, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) was rebuked by the House and apologized. In 2010, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was criticized after mouthing “Not true” during the address. There have been stinging repercussions when audience members have strayed outside the bounds of decorum, leading us to believe that propriety would abide in a Q&A.
The president could open the State of the Union with a statement of no more than 10 minutes that, as before, would recognize national accomplishments of the past year and outline new initiatives. Then, the floor would be turned over to the vice president, in his role as president of the Senate, and the speaker of the House or the ranking minority leader. They would moderate together. Party leaders could select up to seven of their representatives to ask prepared questions, similar to the town hall format of some presidential debates. Every representative would be allowed to submit questions to party leaders, and some questions might be chosen at random.
The result: a candid discussion between the executive and legislative branches. Lawmakers would be able to raise their constituents’ concerns to the level of the presidency — to truly and visibly represent the people. Representatives would be in the spotlight, and their behavior could have the same positive or negative consequences that the president faces after a State of the Union address. Insightful, valid questions could build a representative’s political credibility, while those less deserving of the office might expose his or her buffoonery.
There is no shortage of issues that could and should be addressed by members of both parties and the president. For example, Obama might be asked how long he intends to leave troops in Afghanistan if he can reach a security agreement with Hamid Karzai , what he will do if the Geneva conference fails to end the bloodshed in Syria or what sanctions he is relaxing on Iran as part of the deal to limit its nuclear enrichment program. Every newsworthy topic — NSA surveillance, the Keystone pipeline, fracking, immigration law, whether enough “young invincibles” are signing up for Obamacare, the prospect of future government shutdowns — would be fair game.
Not every president could weather the type of public interrogation that prime ministers regularly endure. Success at a revamped State of the Union would require deep knowledge and clever, quick answers. Perhaps Bill Clinton — known for his State of the Union ad-libs — or George W. Bush could have used this format effectively, but what about Lyndon B. Johnson or Ronald Reagan? LBJ preferred to work behind the scenes, often bullying the opposition, a tactic that would not play well before a prime-time audience; Reagan relied heavily on subordinates, and detailed policy questions in a public forum could have been challenging. But whether they succeed or fail, America’s commanders in chief would have the opportunity to defend and promote their presidencies in a unique, democratic forum.
Changing the State of the Union is risky, but Obama, at least, has the oratory skills and confidence to pull it off and, most important, set a precedent. Done well, the event could inspire the public and energize — or in Obama’s case, reenergize — a presidency.
Is it too much to ask that, at least once a year, we move beyond sound bites to something more substantive and, well, democratic? The president is not royalty, and there are precious few times when he must face his political opposition in an open forum. And while the State of the Union’s current format makes for great inside-the-Beltway entertainment — and even for great drinking games — for the rest of the country, the evening is little more than an opportunity to watch basketball or catch up on “Breaking Bad.”
A new State of the Union could reconnect a disengaged electorate to its government — and celebrate our representative democracy.