The State of the Union address, originally intended to insure that there is some productive communication between the president and Congress, has developed instead into just another speech to the American people. We should be thoroughly disappointed that this is the case.
No president needs any Constitutional incitement to address the public. Because he is both the head of state and, in a country without a parliament, nominally the head of government as well, he is the unitary symbol of the nation's governmental machinery and can command an audience anytime he wishes. Because he is as much a figure of popular culture as anything else, the mere suggestion that he has something to say will cause accredited media people to swarm like insects at the site of the president's choosing. By contrast, the average member of Congress needs to do something extraordinary just to get the attention of a single reporter or blogger, and most days even the four most powerful people in the country---the chairmen and ranking members of the Appropriations Committees---don't merit a single line of copy.
Although the actual business of government is achieved through the president's leadership in the executive branch and---almost more important---among the legislators, the White House spends untold hours crafting an address with nuanced messages that it thinks the people want to hear, and observers spend a commensurate amount of time trying to predict what he will say and subsequently parsing every phrase in an attempt to divine his intentions. This may be more interesting than the majority of things that our government does, but it means little beyond the theater that it provides. More dangerous, at a time when, as Thoreau observed, most men lead lives of quiet desperation, the rhetoric is designed to have some therapeutic effect, while elected leaders do little to discharge their responsibilities and instead wrangle among themselves for some small perceived advantage.
If the past is any predictor, much will be made of the number of times the president is interrupted with applause, which justices of the Supreme Court are attending, and similar trivia, but none of this will tell us anything about the actual state of our Union. What this country needs is government, not more rhetoric or another TV special. These are difficult times that are likely to get more difficult, and it is action that is required, as always effectively exercised not in the public arena but far away from view, in the corridors, cloakrooms and private offices where the state of the Union is really determined.