So how does one gauge the state of the union? Certainly not by watching or reading between the lines of the annual address of the president of the United States before a heralded gathering of both houses of Congress and members of the United States Supreme Court.

This ritual springs from a provision in our Constitution of 200-plus years that the president "shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." In a 21st century communications landscape this is mostly pageantry and political theater, rather than an absolute necessity for a president to convey a legislative agenda to Congress.


In a concession to his lame duck status and to a Republican-controlled Congress that is mostly an obstruction to his aims, President Obama chose to focus on "who we are as Americans: inclusive and compassionate, innovative and courageous."

Anyone in doubt can actually assess the state of the nation more accurately by watching the opening monologues on the late night television shows of Messrs. Colbert, Noah and Wilmore, Fallon, Kimmel and O'Brien. Compared to their biting comedic takes, whatever the president says measures up as less about the state of our nation's health and more about the state of relations among Washington power blocs.

Here in Maryland, which likes to think of itself as a trendsetter, we recognize telltale signs of how the nation is faring, and we know that the situation is closer to what Donald Trump says — "messy" — than it is to the fount of optimism that President Obama sees.

We see the fear of immigrants and smell the fear of terrorism.

We know that despite the creation of some 2.65 million jobs in 2015, many people are still struggling to find a place in this economy. Just ask the thousands who make up the unemployment rolls in Baltimore. And ask those who are working poor who must rely upon assistance from food banks and soup kitchens to make ends meet.

We know that the vast majority of law enforcement officers are true to their oaths to protect and serve all, an increasingly publicized number of officers are engaged in, shall we say, questionable practices — too often resulting in the death of black and brown people they encounter. Think Freddie Gray and the $6.4 million the city has agreed to pay his family. And we can see with our own eyes that the way some clearly dangerous white people are treated — e.g., the armed zealots who took over federal property in Oregon or the suspected assassin of nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., last summer — is clearly more reserved, cautious and sensible than the way a 12-year-old black boy in a public park is treated. Think Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

We know that violence in general is all too common. In Baltimore, 344 bodies and hundreds of shooting survivors bear witness even as public officials, community leaders and neighborhood watch groups all seek ways to prevent the carnage.

We know that, as Sen. Bernie Sanders observed during a campaign stop in Baltimore last month, being poor can be a costly proposition. Ask the women who suffered through years of sexual harassment and deprivation of maintenance services in some of the city's public housing complexes. The housing authority has now agreed to pay them up to $8 million in damages and to assist some of them to relocate their families.

Of course, we still see evidence of President Obama's audacity of hope — or is it partly denial? — in the movie theaters and sports arenas and shopping malls and houses of worship filled with American optimists.

President Obama's take is more rosy than real, more aspirational than achieved. Our national messiness is evident in each nightly monologue by those television sages, and we the people for whom Tuesday's primetime pageantry is intended can see with great clarity the pluses and the minuses.

The choice for us is whether to sit on the sidelines as mere spectators or to pitch in — from voting to volunteering — to assure that when a president tells us that the state of the union is sound, we can believe that.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: