State of the Union: The Slam, the Scowl and the Separation of Powers

Now, you may agree with the president's opinion that the court's ruling in the big campaign-finance case last week was bad for our democracy. You may disagree with him. But the president's choice to go after the court in his speech is, in fact, a departure from one of those unspoken norms of political behavior that inform our constitutional system and lie close to the heart of who we are as a constitutional people. And Justice Alito's loss of composure is also a breach of those old protocols, those old ways.

What we saw, in a sense, was a bit of town-hall rowdiness, a bit of the blogosphere's "disinhibition effect" seeping into the State of the Union address. Not a lot, but a little. And even that little bit -- even this little moment about which I am making far too big a deal, I know -- even this is reflective of the very polarized, very innovative (in a bad way) political culture the president said he was seeking to overcome.

So when he saw the Democrats in congress rise around the justices and lustily cheer his traducing of their ruling as they sat there uncomfortably, a bit like some outcasts in the midst of a righteous mob, I wonder if Barack Obama, the old constitutional law professor, was happy with his rhetorical handiwork.

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