When Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union this week, his success will be measured in television ratings, with panels of pundits all too ready to deliver verdicts devoid of any analysis, writes John Barron.

Historically the American President has been treated with deference and generally high regard when they make the 1,900 metre journey up Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol Building to report to the legislative branch.

It is an important symbolic coming together of the three branches: the executive (the president), the legislative (congress) and the judicial branch (represented by the Justices of the Supreme Court).

But rather like a dysfunctional family at Christmas, these gatherings have become increasingly unhappy occasions.

When Barack Obama addressed a joint session of congress on healthcare in September 2009, Republican representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina called out "You lie!" when the president said illegal migrants wouldn't be covered under what became known as "Obamacare".

Four months later, in a State of the Union speech which was timed not to conflict with the top-rating conclusion to the TV series "Lost", President Obama chided the Supreme Court Justices over the "Citizens United" ruling allowing unlimited corporate contributions to political campaigns.

It was a remarkable, some said un-presidential, taking to task, and it invited an even more remarkable reaction: "With all due deference to separation of powers," the president said, "last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests including foreign corporations spending without limits in our elections."

As Democrats rose to their feet in applause, the TV camera's focussed in on the front row seat containing Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, an appointee of Obama's predecessor George W Bush. Justice Alito shook his head, seemed to pick some food out of his teeth with his tongue, and said, "That's not true."

It's no coincidence that the dissent from Wilson and Alito came at a time when President Obama was girding his loins for battle with the other two branches of government over his unpopular healthcare reforms which will ultimately provide coverage for around 30 million uninsured Americans.

The success of a State of the Union address is now measured in TV ratings and the length and number of applause lines.

Obama's 2012 effort was seen as a letdown when only 37 million viewers tuned in, down 5 million on 2011, and the longest, heartiest applause (36 seconds) was reserved for platitudes like, "Above all our freedom endures because of the men and women who defend it."

Equal pay for women, immigration reform and higher taxes for the rich only earned 16 seconds of clapping from less than half of those assembled.

To an extent it is theatre put on purely for the TV cameras; Democrats cheer every time the President pauses for effect like a boozed-up crowd at a comedy cellar, and Republicans only put their hands together when troops or phrases like "American greatness" are uttered.

The rest of the time they sit in mute defiance (except when someone like Joe Wilson or Sam Alito blurt out what they're really thinking).

The faux-euphoria and improper interjections have become such a distraction that former Texas Republican senator Kay Bailey Hutchison went so far this week as to suggest all members of congress should sit through the State of the Union in complete silence instead.

But of course a Republican would say that, wouldn't they? A dead silent House Chamber would make the President's speech seem like the ultimate flop:

"My fellow Americans, it's time to stop military weapons reaching our streets and our schools." Cue crickets chirping. Cough, cough.

Ain't going to happen.

But canned-applause aside, mugging for the TV camera's is a very real problem for American politics.

It was former House speaker Newt Gingrich in the late 1980s who realised the under-utilised bully pulpit given to all 535 members of the House and Senate by the cable TV broadcaster C-SPAN.

He used his time on air to rail against the then-majority Democrats and later President Clinton, which played a significant role in the Republican Party winning a majority in the 1994 midterms for the first time in four decades.

Gingrich was smart enough to know he wasn't speaking to an almost-empty chamber; he was speaking to the living rooms of America - or at least the living rooms of old, white Americans who tend to watch dull shows like congress and who in the American system tend to be the ones who vote.

And there was another effect from the broadcasts: any Republican or Democrat tempted to cross the floor and vote with the other side was providing ready-made footage for any rival wanting to make an attack-ad during the next primary season.

The result: increasing partisanship.

And don't get me started on the effect of the endless ideological analysis that panels of pundits will provide on American television this week, giving millions of Americans a ready-made opinion before they've even had time to digest the actual detail of the State of the Union.

All three branches of government, and certainly The Fourth Estate, are guilty of grandstanding in the face of TV cameras, and democracy is suffering.

Perhaps we should take a lesson from America's third president, Thomas Jefferson, who decided it was better to deliver a written statement to congress rather than make what he saw as the rather "kingly" speeches.