Time to retire the State of the Union shout-out

When he delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama will be abiding by Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution, which says:

"He 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; and he shall also give a shout-out to guests in the audience who can serve as human props for his political priorities or provide a politically valuable connection between the president and admired Americans."

OK, I made up the last part, but given the popularity of State of the Union shout-outs, they might as well be part of the Constitution.

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Last year, Obama showed some televised presidential love for Nate and Cleo Pendleton, the parents of a 15-year-old girl who was shot and killed in Chicago. The Pendletons were in the audience along with "more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence," the president said. Gun control was a major theme of Obama's speech.

Obama was perpetuating a bipartisan tradition. Probably the most famous State of the Union shout-out was Ronald Reagan's recognition in 1982 of Lenny Skutnik, a government employee who rescued a woman from the Potomac River after a plane crash.

If Obama wants to keep the tradition going, there are several candidates for shout-outs. The White House has invited what NPR calls "a potpourri of exceptional students, inspiring members of the military, everyday heroes and regular folks who exemplify the merit of programs favored by the president." They include two survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing, a fire chief who helped rescue victims of a tornado in Oklahoma and Jason Collins, an openly gay pro basketball player.

So what's wrong with a president singling out these American heroes at a nationally televised event? For one thing, shout-outs turn admirable people into political props. Political theater, however edifying, isn't part of the Constitution's description of the State of the Union address. And by now the trope of the SOTU shout-out has become a cliche and the object of satire.

Obama would be doing the country and his guests a favor by not calling attention to them and basking in their reflected heroism. But I'm not betting on it.


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