It is my private hope that this evening's speech to a joint session of Congress will be President Obama's final State of the Union address. This is not because of any animosity toward the president, but because I support abolition of the State of the Union address.
Simply stated, it is an almost totally meaningless piece of political theatre which most presidents use to consume broadcast airtime and check all the boxes in their bag of tricks; and in recent years it has grown especially estranged from political reality. Almost as much time is spent on the president's entrance and exit from the House chamber, slapping backs, shaking hands, and exchanging bipartisan banalities with members. And Ronald Reagan, I regret to say, inaugurated the practice of recognizing "heroes" in the visitors' galleries, a ritual which has become almost as prolonged as it is patronizing.
In the past half-century I can think of only two SOTU addresses that had a semblance of historic significance: Lyndon Johnson's 1965 address, in which he previewed the Great Society programs he expected the 89th Congress to enact; and Bill Clinton's 1995 address, in which his "relevance" as executive was at stake, since Republicans had gained control of Congress for the first time in a generation, and he took the occasion to announce that "the era of big government is over."
There is a mistaken notion that the State of the Union address is an ancient rite of our democratic republic. It is not. The Constitution declares, in its slightly ambiguous way, 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." For the first century-and-a-quarter presidents interpreted this clause to require an annual written report to Congress. Thomas Jefferson, in fact, deliberately avoided a personal speech because he thought it too closely resembled the annual address to Parliament by the British monarch.
But the political scientist-president Woodrow Wilson believed that the presidency was a dynamic institution that needed to be personified for the benefit of the legislative branch, and so delivered his first State of the Union message (1914) in person to a joint session. This practice was followed only intermittently by subsequent presidents (Harding, Coolidge, Hoover) until Franklin Roosevelt, who delivered his first SOTU address in 1934, and every year thereafter. All presidents since have followed suit.
Obviously, no president is likely to end a "tradition" which has been observed for 76 of the republic's 221 years: It is an opportunity for free air time on television, it allows the executive to harangue the legislature for as long as he wishes, and the press covers it with the regularity of the Kentucky Derby or seasonal reports from the National Hurricane Center. But how nice it would be if Barack Obama's notion of changing "the way things are done in Washington" included a decent burial for this antiquated, irritating, and irrelevant event.