The Magazine

The State of the State of the Union

Feb 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 21 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Where you stand on President Obama’s State of the Union address last week depends, to some degree, on where you sit. Liberals thought the president was feisty, determined, basking in the glow of historic achievements, throwing down the gauntlet at obstructive Republicans. Conservatives thought the president seemed decidedly out of steam, listless, defensive, excessively partisan, willfully ignorant of dangerous problems, threatening to govern by executive fiat.

POLARIS / NEWSCOM

POLARIS / NEWSCOM

The Scrapbook, as usual, takes a contrarian stand: We, too, thought the president’s performance was below par, and found the speech—the whole spectacle—dispiriting, not invigorating. But that’s our reaction to most State of the Union addresses, no matter who’s in the White House. Which leads us from contrariness toward thinking the unthinkable: Maybe it’s time to reconsider the idea of the State of the Union address.

For the history is more complicated than readers might think. Whence cometh the modern State of the Union spectacle? Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution states that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” This sounds to The Scrapbook like an intentionally vague suggestion that the president keep Congress in the loop and, “from time to time,” recommend new legislation for enactment.

But as any student of history—or justice of the Supreme Court—will tell you, the Founders’ exact intentions can sometimes be a matter of conjecture. Our first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, interpreted this to mean an annual address, in person, with a survey of the world and list of prescriptions. But our third president, Thomas Jefferson, thought the practice smacked of Britain’s State Opening of Parliament, with the president playing the role of monarch, not democratically elected chief of the executive branch. He opted, instead, for a written message to Congress, read by a clerk, which tradition took root and served such disparate presidents as Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

It was Woodrow Wilson who, in 1913, revived the notion of a personal State of the Union speech delivered to Congress. Wilson, of course, was a good progressive who thought the presidency had been subsumed by the legislative branch—his Princeton doctoral dissertation on this theme, Congressional Government (1885), became an influential text—and he relished the idea of descending on the House chamber to lay down the law. Every president since has followed his lead.

Both arguments, The Scrapbook concedes, have their merits; but the institution is now almost beyond meaning. The occasion has become what Jefferson feared—legislators welcoming a triumphant Head of State—and the address itself is largely partisan spin, with garrulous incumbents exhorting Congress to do their bidding. Members of the president’s party rise to their feet after every assertion while members of the opposition look sullen and uncomfortable. The diplomatic corps and the Joint Chiefs of Staff sit in quiet mortification while members of Congress stamp the floor and make faces. 

Both parties, alas, have contributed to the spectacle. President Reagan introduced the custom of acknowledging “American heroes” in the visitors’ gallery, which has become not only wearisome but stretched the definition of “hero” (although Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, recognized this year, was a welcome exception to the rule). President Obama has bumptiously hectored the justices of the Supreme Court as they listen in mandatory (and irritated) silence. Any doubt that this annual televised circus is a partisan affair disappeared when the networks introduced the opposition-party “response” in 1966.

No president, so the argument goes, would forgo the chance for a prime-time television appearance where he says what he wants to a captive audience while members of Congress scramble to shake his hand. Maybe. But the gap between what presidents demand and what they get from Congress is increasingly wide. Arguably, the State of the Union address can make a president look weak. 

The Scrapbook’s argument, for what it’s worth, is neatly symmetrical and constitutionally sound: We had written messages for a century, more or less, and have had personal addresses for exactly a century. Time for a change!

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