Should the State of the Union read more like a research thesis?

Jordan Wilhelmi- University alumnus

In the days following President Barack Obama’s fifth State of the Union, we find ourselves in the same political conundrum as the days preceding the annual address. Both Democrats and Republicans agree on some of the country’s most pressing needs: jobs, affordable health care and high-quality education. But the underlying philosophies on how to solve these problems are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

The president wants to target income inequality, while Republicans claim the problem lies in opportunity inequality. The president stands by Obamacare, but Republicans are hell-bent on disabling the law. The president is focused on expanding his Race to the Top initiative, while Republicans are more concerned with offering school choice.

The real problem that needs to be addressed is the substitution of talking points for defined solutions. Amid all the pomp and circumstance of the State of the Union, the night has devolved into more of a spectacle than a vehicle for laying out a comprehensive path to move forward on these issues.

The Republican list of invites alone has become a staged political statement asserting the party’s unwillingness to compromise on policy solutions with the president. Some representatives even chose to lob their juvenile attacks at the so-called “kommandant” behind the veil of social media.

But the president played politics with the situation as well. Understanding the midterm elections are just months away, he delivered a speech that was about as non-partisan as he could make it.

Most notably, the administration pulled back its punches on gun control — a major theme in the president’s 2013 address. It’s foolish to not recognize this as a calculated political tactic. The president was looking out for fellow Democrats running in 2014, and ultimately, fears of reigniting the fight over guns and the Second Amendment won the day.

The Republican response continued the night’s refrain of weightless prose. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., recycled the same old conservative clichés of less government, more free-market solutions and a pinch of religion as the cure to our nation’s woes. Beyond a few anecdotal stories, there were no hard numbers or legislative end goals.

So how do we move past this trivial showcase of eloquent orator and demagoguery? How do we elevate our society above the use of patronizing buzzwords that make us feel good, while glossing over real solutions?

I propose we reform the annual address to resemble something more of a research thesis. What is stopping the president from becoming professor-in-chief for one night? After all, he is surrounded by some of the brightest minds in the country. Why do we not focus on a specific issue and expound upon actual research in the fields of economics and
science?

Instead, we listen to stump speeches better served for the campaign trail than progressing our democracy. There is nothing wrong with using the enigma of the presidency to inspire hope, but at a certain point, we must abandon rhetoric for reason. We must use such a stage to inform the American people and raise the level of debate beyond emotional vitriol toward the discussion of factual ideas.

The problem we suffer as a country is that we believe we are incapable of learning and fixing what is fundamentally causing our problems. The solution is to challenge this notion of incapability with a charge of action founded in scientific arguments that can be deconstructed and discussed within the parameters of policy, not politics.

It’s time to abandon the frivolous party talking points and reopen the public arena to the sharing of concrete ideas. As Leo McGarry, a character in television’s “The West Wing,” once said, “It’s easy to applaud for something that no one is going to make you stand up and pass.“

Let us make the State of the Union a speech that increases the intellect of the American people. A lecture that treats us like adults and involves us in the understanding of how our democracy works can be just as inspiring as soaring rhetoric. At the least, it will provide us something actually worth standing and applauding for.