President Biden fulfilled his duty to report to Congress in what has become known as the State of the Union address. The Constitution indicates it is part of his job description. For those unfamiliar with the document, this report to Congress is mandated in Article II. It simply states that 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.” This did not start out as the spectacle to which we were invited last week. In fact, for much of the Nineteenth Century it did not necessarily involve the President appearing in person before the Congress. With the advent of radio and greater interest by the general public in the machinations of its government, the annual address developed into a more formal event and came under more scrutiny.
As the first President elected under the Constitution (yes, there were a bunch of others before him under the Articles of Confederation and the Continental Congress), George Washington had to deliver the first State of the Union address. In keeping with his focus on action, rather than eloquence, George delivered the shortest State of the Union speech that would ever be received by Congress. There was no time for applause or defamatory shouts during his report. The entire address lasted only a few minutes, and none of the legislators present would have dared criticize or berate the General face to face. Back then, the politically ambitious relied upon intermediaries in the mass media (newspapers) to attack the unassailable. The media has changed, but the message is much the same.
At the most recent State of the Union address, there was the usual partisan applause from the Democrats and the rehearsed silence from the Republicans. As always, the members of the Supreme Court were seated up front and gave no response to the remarks made. They sat like figures in a wax museum, as reluctant to display their emotions in that venue as they were to offer authentic opinions in their confirmation hearings. The gallery had invited guests ranging from heroes of the government to victims of police brutality. The President proclaimed success in numerous matters, economic and otherwise, and the Speaker of the House shook his head in disagreement. It was in many respects a fairly routine performance, except for the yelling and booing.
This celebration of democracy is usually a fairly subdued affair, but not this time. Some Republicans yelled, “Liar, liar,” and others shouted their disagreements with claims made by Mr. Biden. An especially contentious issue was whether or not Republicans had suggested altering or ending Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The Republican audience was appalled that they would be accused of diminishing or eliminating these entitlement programs. Gentlemen and gentlewomen would certainly never touch these pillars of elderly health and welfare. Or at least they would be more discreet in discussing changes to the programs.
Those of us with memories remember President George W. Bush floating a proposal to allow people to divert their Social Security contributions to the stock market or other investment tools to (theoretically) increase the return on their contributions. That suggestion was shelved more quickly than a stock market correction, but Wall Street firms and the legislators they support never abandoned this formula for windfall profits. Rather than thrusting this proposal into the open without any protective clothing, the Republicans working on reducing the ever-expanding budget deficit proposed mandating the end of government programs after they have been active for five years and requiring the Congress to vote to re-institute them. Without a successful vote in Congress, Social Security, Medicare, etc. would simply cease to exist or could be radically revised to exclude coverage to many who depend on them. These enormously expensive programs would stop draining the Treasury, and the trillions of dollars of tax cuts already passed by this pseudo-frugal Congress for the benefit of their generous benefactors would remain untouched.
The boisterous response to Mr. Biden’s speech was refreshing. The last time someone spoke up during a State of the Union address was in 2009 when Representative Joe Wilson, the congressman from South Carolina, shouted, “You lie,” as President Obama delivered his State of the Union address. The President took the remark in stride, and Congressman Wilson subsequently apologized for his outburst. The Congressman was following a longstanding tradition in South Carolina to fire the first shot. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union in December, 1860, and was the site of the first military action in the Civil War, that being the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April, 1861.
There will be no apologies this time for the negative chorus directed at Mr. Biden at several points in his speech. As one reporter noted, it sounded more like the House of Commons in England than the House Chamber in Washington. Joe Wilson broke the ice, and Congress fell through it to express their disapproval in real time before the formal response to the President’s address by the opposition party representative, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
The outbursts and the President’s responses to the outbursts made the event more interesting and authentic. They also helped dispel the notion that the state of the Union is strong. On the contrary, Americans are at odds on too many issues to list, ranging from immigration to abortion to firearms control. Our democracy is not yet on life support, but it will take little to destroy this experiment in self-government and to replace it with an authoritarian dictatorship. Keep those political defibrillators ready. We may need to resuscitate a pulseless government if those intent upon subverting our democratic processes are successful. January 6, 2021, was not a failed coup: it was a dress rehearsal.
Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.