Tuesday night, I’ll have the privilege and honor to represent the Berkshires and the rest of Western Massachusetts at the 2014 State of the Union Address as the citizen invitee of U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, the 1st Congressional District’s congressman.
Though I’ve watched nearly every single State of the Union speech on TV, I’ll admit that being there in person had never crossed my mind, so out of the realm of reality it has seemed. My political ambitions ended after a stint as vice president of Hoosac Valley High’s Class of 1989, but my interest in politics has grown ever since I played the role of Ted Kennedy running in the 1980 presidential election in Mrs. Winslow’s third-grade civics class at Commercial Street School in Adams.
To be in the same room as the president, vice president, the House, the Senate, the president’s Cabinet (all but one member, of course, to ensure the continuity of government), the Supreme Court, Joint Chiefs of Staff, diplomatic envoys the world over -- are you kidding me? The kid from Adams, Mass.?
I digress. (But tonight, I will be trying on my best suit to make sure it fits and let’s hope it still does. I did briefly contemplate making a tiny flag with "413" written on it, but I’m guessing that’s not going to fly past security. And to avoid a partisan appearance with red or blue and because I don’t own a purple one, I’ll don my favorite yellow tie.)
So, having accepted Mr. Neal’s invite a little more than a week ago, it seemed prudent to brush up on the history surrounding the State of the Union address and to think ahead on what President Obama may put before the Congress and the nation.
Of course we all learned in history class that the president of the United States is required "from time to time" to provide the House and Senate with an update on how the country is doing and where he thinks it should be headed.
"From time to time" is key; the U.S. Constitution doesn’t mandate the frequency or how exactly the president should provide this information. In person? A letter? Today, it could be an email. (Wednesday night, the @WhiteHouse Twitter account posted a picture of a draft of the State of the Union; if you’re on Twitter, follow #InsideSOTU for more of this kind of information.)
It’s been only within the last 100 years that this meeting before a joint session of Congress has become a generally annual event, I learned from the U.S. House website. And though Presidents Washington and Adams delivered their addresses in person to both houses of Congress, the in-person address has only become a tradition within the past century.
We have Woodrow Wilson to thank for this. He convened the body for his address in 1913 and every president since followed suit. If you’re wondering what the fellows in the White House did in between Adams and Wilson, they simply wrote letters and sent them off to the House and Senate.
Certainly now more than ever, the State of the Union is an instantaneous public spectacle that’s immediately analyzed, scrutinized and categorized. Yes, it’s a message to Congress. But more so, it’s a chance for presidents to speak directly to the people of the United States gathered in front of their TVs, live streams on their computers, and following the Twitter hashtag #SOTU on their smartphones.
In my view, President Obama’s speech on Tuesday may be the most pivotal of his presidency. It began as an ambitious year, but ended up as his toughest: A faulty health care website rollout, the National Security Agency’s citizen data-snooping revelation, and a filibustering party on the other side of the aisle.
These are issues the president simply cannot ignore in the 2014 State of the Union. They are too great. But what new will be said and how might it set the nation on a different path?
At the end of this year, he’ll have hit the midpoint of his second term. And within the speech, I’ll wager there’s an intense focus to rectify his legacy against the challenges of the past year, some of which will be challenges this coming year.
Undoubtedly, President Obama will chart the course for new initiatives in 2014, too. Will they be bold? What prospects might prompt both parties in Congress to clap in unison? Is that even possible? Will his presentation achieve the buy-in he is seeking from the American public?
So, with that food for thought, I’ll be listening closely from a second row balcony seat.
I’ll be the guy in the yellow tie.
Kevin Moran is the vice president of news at The Eagle. He is paying his own way during the trip and will independently tweet and report on the address. On Twitter, Moran is at twitter.com/iamberkshire.