Peter Ubertaccio: Failure of the State of the Union Speech
January 24, 2012
by Peter Ubertaccio
Thomas Jefferson ended the practice of giving the State of the Union address in person before Congress because he believed the ceremony smacked of monarchy and too closely resembled the King's Speech from the Throne. Today, when the British monarch reads her speech at the State Opening of Parliament, she recites words written for her by the government in power and the party or coalition with majority control over the legislature. The words have meaning and are followed by positive legislative action.
Despite much pomp and pageantry, such meaning and action are missing from the modern State of the Union address in the United States. It may be time for Americans to rethink the purpose of this annual rite, and to consider bringing the tradition back to its constitutional origins.
Each year, our president will march into the big room and, to much partisan applause, lay before Congress an exhaustive list of policy proposals, many which stretch the meaning of the words "necessary and expedient" in the Constitution--but they do not have the power to demand compliance with their goals. Thus is today's State of the Union address primarily a tool of politics rather than a tool of governing.
The in-person practice was reinstated in April, 1913 by the progressive Woodrow Wilson, who believed that constitutional separation of power was the central problem of American politics. Wilson believed a strong party leader as president could overcome the constitutional design and his dominance of Democratic Party politics and Congress produced a significant legislative agenda, leading credence to his view.
But presidents are not prime ministers or monarchs and Wilson only temporarily overcame constitutional norms without changing the Constitution. More dangerously, he helped establish an expectation of presidential government, of executive leadership capable through words and action of ameliorating social and economic disparities and political differences. The State of the Union is now a central feature in this false narrative of American government.
Wilson's conservative successors delivered fewer addresses in person, with Herbert Hoover not appearing before Congress at all. But since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, it has become customary for the President deliver the address before a joint meeting of the House and Senate. And, though the Constitution maintains that the address the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union," Lyndon Johnson brought the speech to prime time, allowing the address to be delivered directly to the American people on television.
Addresses now routinely feature a laundry list of legislative goals that run the gamut of federal government activities with presidentially approved deadlines for action
When Ronald Reagan assumed office in 1981 he didn't allow his essential conservatism to prevent him from expanding the spectacle of the State of the Union to include references to honored guests, American heroes, and just plain regular citizens. The event became a forum for storytelling.
And politics naturally intruded. In 1996, President Clinton introduced the nation to a hero of the Oklahoma City bombing, Richard Dean. After appropriate applause to his feats of bravery on that terrible day, the President followed up by noting how the government shutdown engineered by the Congress forced Dean to work without pay. Clinton then spoke "on behalf of Richard Dean and his family, and all the other people who are out there working every day doing a good job for the American people" to refrain from shutting down the government in future. Clinton scored big politically.
The danger with modern State of the Union Addresses is not just that they tend toward divisive politics or demagoguery or that they lack in decorum (increasingly so thanks to Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst and President Obama's broadside against the Supreme Court) but that they encourage the Wilsonian view that the problem with our system is the Constitutional separation of powers and that presidents are political saviors who can dictate policy demands and deadlines to Congress.
They can't. But that hasn't prevented them from insisting they can overcome the limits of their office through a skilled and politically adept State of the Union. What they might gain in political prestige through this annual spectacle, we lose in our understanding of the constitutional parameters of our government.
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