The Forgotten Home Front

What are the main elements of national well-being? It is startling how out-of-date and out-of-touch our official politics has become

At kabuki performances in Japan audiences sometimes exclaim "Matte mashita!" during crucial points in the drama. In context this means something like "Here it comes!" or "This is what we've been waiting for!" and it greets the best-known lines in the play. If American theatergoers followed the same custom, people would yell "Matte mashita!" when they heard "To be or not to be ..." in Hamlet or "I'll be back" in a Terminator movie.

In American political culture, which displays some of the same affection for formulaic stagecraft, the theatrical highlight of the year is the State of the Union address. Presidents have presented Congress with reports on the state of national affairs since the republic's beginning, as required by the Constitution. But since Woodrow Wilson established the modern custom of a President's delivering the report in person, in a speech to a special session of Congress, the State of the Union address has evolved into the main kabuki-like ceremony in our national politics.

Even more than the inauguration, the State of the Union has become a ritual celebration of the glory of the presidency. At an inauguration the excitement surrounding the President is often tempered by the pathos of an old President's being ushered off the scene. The State of the Union is all about the incumbent.

With live TV cameras on them, representatives and even proud senators fidget in a packed House chamber until the President arrives. Foreign diplomats troop in to pay the world's respects to America's leader. The military chiefs of staff, in their uniforms, are there; the justices of the Supreme Court, in their robes; the members of the Cabinet—minus one, who will take over the government in case of disaster. Honored guests, whose achievements will be praised in the speech, are seated near the President's spouse. With all the supporting cast in place, the sergeant at arms comes to the chamber's door—and the President makes his way toward the dais through a crowd of cheering politicians from both parties, many reaching to touch him as he moves by. He stands at the front of the chamber until the cheers finally die—and as soon as they do, the speaker of the House plays his role in the drama. He tells his colleagues that he has the "high privilege and the distinct honor in presenting to you the President of the United States." As he utters these words, another minutes-long standing ovation begins.

On it goes for most of the next hour: the President's backers cheering the partisan items in his list of proposals, the opposition sitting noticeably still at those moments. The Vice President and the speaker of the House, onstage props visible whenever the President is on camera, try to sit still at all times. Perhaps at the beginning of the speech, perhaps at the end, the President builds toward his Matte mashita! line. "The state of the union," he tells the crowd—which prepares to cheer, knowing that the expected sentence has arrived—"is good."

Or perhaps it's not just "good." It was good "with room for improvement" according to Gerald Ford as he prepared to leave office in 1977; and it was "sound" according to Jimmy Carter the following year. For Bill Clinton in 1995, speaking after his party had been routed in midterm elections, the state of the union was merely "stronger than it was two years ago." By the end of his second term Clinton was ready to declare the state of the union "the strongest it has ever been." George W. Bush began his State of the Union address one year ago, as bombs fell in Afghanistan, with the speech's punch line, an artful two-sentence version of the usual one-liner: "As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our union has never been stronger."

In its substance as in its procedural pomp, the State of the Union address has come to represent all that is ritualistic and insiderish about modern politics. It is the one major speech a President is sure to deliver each year. Therefore, the day after one address has been given, much of the government gears up to influence the content of the next year's. The impetus comes in the coded language of Washington: a sentence here about the "high priority" of some new education program, which can be used to defend an extra $100 million in budget requests; a mention there of a "strong new partnership" with a certain country, which can settle a dispute between the State Department and the Pentagon. Speechwriters dread this speech as they do no other assignment (or at least I did, when working for Jimmy Carter), because so many forces conspire to make it a clotted, committee-bred document whose hidden signals the ordinary listener will completely miss. The closest thing to a memorable line in recent addresses was Bill Clinton's declaration, in 1996, that "the era of big government is over."

The oddity of this situation is that although the State of the Union in the Washington sense has become stylized and removed from everyday American concerns, the real state of the union is of enormous social and cultural interest. Pollsters have known for years that one question above all indicates Americans' satisfaction with public life and confidence in their leaders—the question that is typically phrased as "In general, do you feel that things in America are moving in the right direction or the wrong direction?" This is another way of asking whether the state of the union is sound—and when answering the question, people consider a wide range of concerns: How they and their family members are doing, materially and spiritually. What they observe or believe about others. What they think the future will bring. To what extent they feel in control of events, rather than feeling like objects or victims. Some components of this real state of the union are purely private matters, but many others are part of the environment that public life is supposed to help determine. The education system, the robustness of the national economic base, the physical safety of citizens, their pride in what the nation stands for—these and many other areas involve politics to some degree.

That the components of the real state of the union are complex and subjective doesn't mean they can't be discussed—and in many cases measured. An attempt to think broadly and originally about these elements of national well-being lies behind this special section. Some of the essays that follow offer specific action plans; others identify trends to watch. And although they are political in the broadest sense, most don't bother with comparisons of the Democratic and Republican positions on the subject at hand. The assumption is that in most of the areas under discussion the major-party platforms are essentially fundraising tools or ways to organize blocs of interest groups.

This first presentation, in what is planned as an ambitious ongoing effort to measure and assess national well-being, is deliberately confined to domestic policy. In part that is a corrective. The national discussion of the past year, in this magazine as elsewhere, has naturally emphasized the fight against terrorism, and America's new place in the world. But the main reason for the concentration on issues within our national borders is our conviction that in the long run, domestic policy matters most. America's wars have changed the world, mainly for the better, and they have had deep effects on the country's social and economic institutions. World War II led to official desegregation. The Cold War brought a government-funded scientific establishment. But the signature turning points in American history have mainly been defined by what happened inside the country: immigration, expansion, economic growth, economic difficulties. Over time the domestic strength of a country gives it the material and moral force to play a role in the world. And no President named George Bush need wonder what happens politically to those who forget about the domestic economy.

Lasting principles and clear, simple statements do rise above the specifics of any situation. But it is startling how out-of-date and out-of-touch each party's platform seems when compared with the details in the essays that follow. Indeed, if one theme emerges from these essays, it is how disconnected our official politics has become from the real-world, fast-changing, interesting-in-their-details elements that constitute our national welfare. After the recent midterm elections everyone said that the Democrats had suffered because they had run out of good ideas. That was partly true. But the Republicans don't have much to brag about either. The Democrats have over the past two years stood for the ideas that the Republican tax policy was unfair but not unfair enough to actually vote against, and that the Administration's strategy toward Iraq was rash but not rash enough to oppose. Meanwhile, the Republican domestic agenda can without too much violence be summarized as: reduce income taxes and eliminate the "death tax."

Americans have traditionally been vain about their pragmatism. Let the French have their philosophes, the British and the Germans their aristocrats who stand on ceremony. Ours would be the culture of the doer, the tinkerer, the keen observer who noticed what actually worked. In ideal form the American leader would be a Benjamin Franklin, with lofty interests but an unshakably realistic bent. Better, he would be a Lincoln: a true visionary who also recognized that the drunken General Grant was the best man for the job.

Lincoln, too, issued State of the Union messages, at a time when the existence of the union itself was in question. His second, in 1862, is the most memorable. "The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present," he said. "As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew." We offer these essays in that spirit.