The thankless job of responding to the State of the Union address

Many Americans remember the awkward response that Louisiana Governor Piyush “Bobby” Jindal gave to President Obama‘s 2009 State of the Union address as shown in the video above. Jindal looked like he was about to give a tour of the Disneyland Haunted Mansion rather than someone who might occupy the White House. Some folks even called Jindal “Kenneth the Page.” But Jindal is not the only member of the opposing party who looked awful giving a response to a president’s State of the Union speech.

Another disastrous and possibly presidency-killing State of the Union response was given by Bob Dole in 1994. Who can forget Doles’s dour expression and his health care chart that looked like a bowl of complicated pasta? Or how about Michele Bachmann‘s unusual opportunity to give a State of the Union response in 2011 on behalf of the Tea Party? Bachmann was ridiculed for looking into the wrong camera. Are you sensing a pattern here? The Statue of the Union response is a tough gig.

The President of the United States has the world’s largest bully pulpit, and nowhere is that bully pulpit more on display than during the State of the Union address. The U.S. House chamber is filled with Congressional representatives, Senators, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other dignitaries. The Vice President and the Speaker of the House sit directly behind the President, and directly in front of a giant made-for-tv American flag. The House Sergeant at Arms introduces the President to thunderous applause.

In contrast, the response to the State of the Union address is usually given in some office made to look cozy and important with, respectively, framed family photos and a flag. Or sometimes the politician giving the response does so from his or her state capitol, as was the case with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell in 2010. This rarely works. At best, the setting pales in comparison with the U.S. House Chamber, thus the attempt to put the opponent on an even footing with the President falls short. At worst, these speeches can be painfully hokey and ultimately hurtful to the speaker. Just ask Bobby Jindal, Bob Dole and Michele Bachmann.

You can also add Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Everett Dirksen, Al Gore, Gerald Ford, Joe Biden and others to the list of presidential wannabes who ultimately weren’t helped by giving the State of the Union response (Ford was appointed Vice President, succeeded Richard Nixon as President when Nixon resigned, then lost his first and only election in 1976). In a few days, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida will face the same pressure and the same disadvantages as he takes his turn responding to President Obama‘s 2013 State of the Union address.

So why do we even have a response to the State of the Union address? Is it required by the Constitution, as is the President’s duty to report to Congress “from time to time” on the State of the Union? Nope. Not surprisingly, the reason for the State of the Union response has to do with television. When President Lyndon B. Johnson asked for prime time tv coverage of his State of the Union address in 1966, Republicans demanded a televised response. It’s not clear that this demand has helped them, or very many opponents of the incumbent President, in the intervening years.



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