When you watch a president give a State of the Union Address on television, you’re always watching three people: the president at the podium, and the vice president and House speaker on the rise behind him. As a TV shot it’s awkward. The vice president and the speaker have been instructed by media professionals not to let their eyes do what they want to do, which is survey the doings in the chamber. Instead they must stare unwaveringly at the back of the president’s head. This is so that they appear to be fascinated by what he’s saying, as if he’s so interesting that they can’t take their eyes off him. It’s also so that you, the viewer, don’t become distracted by wondering whom they’re looking at in the audience.
It’s uncomfortable for them, and boring. You, as a member of the TV audience, get to watch the president. The speaker and the vice president get to think, “Huh, he’s getting a little gray in the back.” The reason Nancy Pelosi often seems a little dart-eyed in these circumstances is that she’s always trying to get a look at the chamber when she thinks the camera isn’t on her. Joe Biden seems happy to be the fascinated person with crinkly eyes and shining teeth. But for Mrs. Pelosi it’s a challenge. This is her chamber, all her people are here, and she wants to be looking at John Boehner’s face and Harry Reid’s and see who’s cheering and who’s wearing what.
But the three-shot the other night was also the president’s problem. It underscored that he gave the first year of his presidency to the Democrats of Congress, that they wrote the costly and unpopular health-care and spending bills.