State of the Union, historically speaking
Published: Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, January 29, 2014 23:01
Ah the State of the Union. The annual event where people take pause from posting their relationship problems and food selfies on Facebook and Instagram to pontificate about political issues of which they have little to no practical understanding.
Unlike the national party conventions every four years, which also capture the imaginations of low-information voters, nothing significant ever really comes from the State of the Union address. Yes, presidents hash out vague policy objectives for the next twelve months but the specifics are largely left up to Congress and various cabinet members, and many times the broad goals aren’t even addressed.
For viewers, the event itself is largely an exercise in party identity. If you support whichever party holds the Oval Office, then the speech is characterized as renewed optimism and guidance from the chief executive. If you’re from the opposition, well then the president’s a grandstanding liar who’s avoiding the real issues.
Is the State of the Union even necessary anymore? Fans of platitude-palooza will contend that it’s written in the Constitution. They’re sort of right. Here’s the relevant passage from Article II (the “he” refers to the president):
“He 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.”
Nice and vague, just like almost everything else in the Constitution. When the Constitution doesn’t delve into specifics, it’s best to look to precedent. According to a great historical write-up from Robert Schlesinger of US News & World Report, George Washington and John Adams delivered annual addresses. Thomas Jefferson quickly put an end to the practice, opting to give a written report to the legislature, because a speech reminded him too much of the British monarchy.
For about the next century, presidents followed Jefferson’s lead and simply sent written State of the Unions to Congress, but Woodrow Wilson broke the mold in 1913, delivering an oral message to Congress citing the need to have a more personal, unifying presidency.
Since Wilson, presidents have given annual addresses to Congress, with adaptations being made according to technological advances, starting with radio and moving to the primetime television speech we’re accustomed to today.
As it exists, the State of the Union is more spectacle than anything else. It serves little purpose other than to preempt primetime TV programming and allow members of Congress to publicly display their support or opposition to the president.
It is theatrical Beltway posturing to the max, and the rest of us receive no tangible benefit from the January diversion. The State of the Union speech is self-serving for all politicians involved, so it will remain in place indefinitely.
I’m not overly optimistic, but maybe we’ll elect another president who can take a page from Jefferson’s book and eliminate the needless spectacle entirely.