I feel the same about Wednesday night’s State of the Union address by President Obama. The BBC television coverage's was fine, but most of the time, there was no way of knowing who was up and who was down. If only I had been in the Capitol chamber, I could have gotten a better reading of the politics, just by watching the ritual of members of Congress demonstrating their feelings by either standing or remaining firmly seated during the address.
I don‘t know when the tradition of standing and repetitive applauding for the President during the State of the Union started. On this occasion, Congress’s version of aerobics began after Obama’s long, uninterrupted opening. Once members started applauding, they were up and down with considerable frequency as the President took them through his plans for jobs, financial reform, civil rights, nuclear weapons, Iraq and Afghanistan, education, reduction of the deficit, health care, and gays in the military.
A Gut Reaction to Obama’s “State of The Union” & Foreign Policy: Ignoring the Kids in the Backseat
Video & Transcript: President Obama’s State of the Union Address (27 January)
Measured through the BBC's restricted perspective, how did he do? Well, this was a tour de force. Obama is a brilliant speaker but, let's be blunt, he also compares incredibly well with his predecessor. On this night, Obama was Presidential.
Still, there were quirks in the presentation. By tradition, one Cabinet member is left behind in the White House, a precaution in case all the others are wiped out by some disaster or nefarious activity during the speech. I did not see the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in the audience. Surely Obama did not choose her to hold the fort! [Editor: Fret not. Clinton was in London for talks on Afghanistan, Yemen, and Iran.] Then there were the military brass hats who were present. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if they are all wiped out, especially if they keep giving Obama stony-faced looks, as they did when he brought up the issues of gays serving in the armed forces.
And there was a bit of controversy. Obama, a constitutional law expert, took on the judiciary. “With due deference to separation of powers,” he said, “last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that…will open the floodgates for special interests…to spend without limit in our elections…I urge [Congress] to pass a bill to correct the problem.” For 30 seconds, the cameras fixed on the Supremes, so I do not know which legislators stood or sat, as the judges remained immobile. That would have been useful information.
And there were the signs of the White House's building battle with Congress. Earlier in his speech, Obama spoke of sending a bill to Congress on job creation. Within minutes, Republicans peremptorily dismissed the proposal, expressing no interest in using $30 billion in bank bailout money for business tax credits.
I wonder whether Obama looks enviously at Gordon Brown. The British set piece equivalent of State of the Union is the Opening of Parliament, when Elizabeth II reads the Queen’s Speech, detailing the government’s legislation package for the following parliamentary session, in the chamber of the House of Lords. The speech is effectively written by the Prime Minister and his inner cabinet. Her Majesty just reads it. All members of the House of Commons gather, standing, at the back of the chamber while the Lords are seated. There is rarely any question as to whether the bills will pass. Government majorities and whips will see to that. So no stand/sit dilemma here.
So two cheers for Obama and three cheers for the British in the stand/sit debate. The American practice wastes time. It is irritating and childish. Standing ovations should be reserved are for glorious feats in a Test Cricket Match (especially versus Australia), scoring a winning goal in football ("soccer"), and the awarding of an Oscar. Ovations during a speech reduce and devalue it. And for members to divide politically when their President calls upon them to show leadership, not partisanship, is downright offensive, not just to the President but to the electorate.
Still, next time BBC, give me a wide-angle view.