“Christmas for policy wonks.” “The political Super Bowl.” “A very boring speech.” Three different descriptions for one of the biggest nights in politics: the annual State of the Union. Here in Washington, D.C, we politicos have been known to create bingo cards or gather in bars to watch an address that will have major implications for the work we do.
Though the Constitution mandates that the president deliver a report on the State of the Union to Congress “from time to time,” the report hasn’t always been so theatrical. Up until 1913, most presidents simply delivered their state of the union as a written report to Congress. President Woodrow Wilson changed the game when he delivered his report in person to gain support for his agenda, and subsequent presidents seized the opportunity to speak to the nation in times of war and peace, prosperity and paucity. What began as a simple written report became a major national event that spoke directly to the country about our shared values and goals — and weighed the state of our nation against them.
Yet, for all the excitement, there are also many who see the State of the Union as mere political theater — another opportunity for a power-hungry politician to make grandiose statements and big promises that will never be fulfilled.
All fair criticisms: U.S. politics has become a game of trolling, ethics investigations, sedition, and never-ending media appearances. When politicians of different parties can make jokes about “ruining each other’s reputations” for working together, it’s hard to believe that a simple speech can make any real progress, especially when so many of us are still struggling to recover from the devastating economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the theatrics and political games, I tune in every year, whether it is my professional obligation or not. As a person whose faith guides my own values and goals for this nation and the people who call it home, I view the State of the Union as an opportunity to hear whether the president’s vision for the country aligns with my own.
It is also a chance to see who in the room supports those values based on how members of Congress react when the president mentions policies I support — crucial insight into what politicians believe and who is willing to break free of political games to do what is best for the country. My notes from the address are filled with names of who sat with whom, who talked to whom and for how long, and who stood up and clapped at certain points in the speech. All these minor details help me identify legislators who will champion policies that align with my vision for a more perfected union.
I was pleasantly surprised when President Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union address felt a bit like a homily. Though Biden broke all our Catholic rules about a short service, he used his address to uplift a core American value: Every human is created equal in the image of God and has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Throughout his 73-minute address, Biden laid out a vision for the basic elements of the rights we need to honor our imago dei, including an expanded Child Tax Credit and access to paid family and medical leave so everyone can take care of themselves and their families.
As a social worker, I was looking for Biden to discuss programs and policies that focused on social determinants of health, defined as the economic, social, and environmental conditions of the places where people born, live, play, work, and worship that impact their health and well-being. He addressed many of these factors as he spoke to working families across the country who have felt left behind or invisible. He outlined his economic agenda and how it’s bringing back manufacturing and creating good-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. Most importantly, he highlighted major legislative wins, from gun safety reform, economic supports, lower drug prices, and climate change — all important governmental achievements that can improve our communities and ensure that people have the resources they need to live and thrive.
I found myself getting emotional when Biden talked about the need for caregiver supports and increased resources to ensure aging and older adults can age in place. During the pandemic, I worked with medically fragile and homebound aging and older adults and I thought of how much my patients’ lives would improve with increased support and services. I also thought about how increasing access to these services would honor the inherent dignity and worth of millions of seniors by affording them the opportunity to age in place.
As a Black American, I was also looking for Biden to speak to the realities of my lived experience and articulate a serious plan to address the inequities and injustices Black and brown people continue to face in this country. Unfortunately, I was disappointed that he did not offer a more nuanced and complex discussion on the issues of racial injustice and inequity that continue to plague our communities. I see this as an opportunity — not a lost cause — for faith advocates, especially as we approach the 2024 election. It gives us a clarion call to ensure that every politician, not just the president, understands that it is not enough to pay lip service to Black and brown communities and expect our vote; it is time to demand that we are taken seriously as a powerful voting bloc and critical part of America’s socioeconomic system.
Through the highs, lows, and unseemly outbursts from members of Congress, what struck me the most was Biden’s tone of hope for our government, for our country, and for our future. Throughout his address, Biden reassured us that he saw Americans struggling and “gets it.” He spoke clearly and directly to the American people about the progress we’ve made over the past two years and his agenda for the future. Touching on the theme of possibility, Biden repeatedly stated that “we need to finish the job,” which should serve as a reminder to faith advocates to lean into our scriptural values and do what we must, because faith without works is dead. In balancing the realities of the past with the hope of the future, Biden’s State of the Union reminds us that defending democracy and helping the American people are the only path towards shared peace, prosperity, and security.
Author’s note: For more political analysis of the 2023 State of the Union, check out “State of Faith: Faith’s Role in the Future of American Democracy,” a webinar featuring faith voices hosted by Michael Vasquez of the Maiden Group and co-sponsored by Sojourners.