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Let’s Eliminate The State Of The Union Address

2012_state_of_the_union

Politico’s Glenn Thrush wonders if maybe we need to do away with all the pagentary and hoopla surrounding the State of the Union Address:

Barack Obama’s second inaugural address, 2,100 words of progressive punch, was a blast to write, and Obama was so into the process he even went out of his way to instruct staff what to underline on the teleprompter, so he wouldn’t under-sell his best material. This speech is more blah — a texty tightrope walk between bipartisan platitude and a two-by-four to reeling Congressional Republicans.

We don’t need to go through this every year. Article II of the Constitution vaguely mandates that the executive communicate with the legislature. A nice letter would do. A Tweet might even fit the bill. Washington and Adams read their speeches to Congress but Jefferson discontinued the practice, viewing it as “too monarchical.” Woodrow Wilson, whose professorial populism has evoked comparisons to Obama, recognized the value of the platform and established the modern stage-managed practice, a mostly pseudo-event ideally suited to big radio and TV broadcasts.

Last month, NPR asked, “Is the State of the Union obsolete?”

Historian Louis Gould, a student of Hill-White House relations for decades, wrote: “It is time to end the meaningless annual ritual of the State of the Union address… What began as a yearly survey of the nation’s condition has deteriorated into a frivolous moment of political theater and continuous campaigning.” That was in 2006, and dozens of commentators have howled into the wind since.

This is a sentiment that we hear from some corner of the punditocracy each year around this time. Indeed, I’ve made the same argument myself. After all, the Constitution merely requires Congress to keep Congress apprised of the state of the union “from time to time.” It doesn’t require that the President address Congress in person. Heck, it technically doesn’t even require that the President perform this duty on an annual basis. As it stands, it became the practice starting with Thomas Jefferson for the President to send a written message to Congress on an annual basis, and that tradition continued for more than 100 years until Woodrow Wilson became President and decided to revive the practice of speaking in front of Congress that had been followed, to some extent, by Presidents Washington and Adams. Given that this coincided with the birth of modern media — first radio and then television — it was inevitable that Wilson’s innovation would stick and, indeed, nearly every President since then has given an annual address to Congress that has become more and more of a media spectacle as the years go on. The one exception was Calvin Coolidge, who returned to the Jeffersonian tradition. But that was short-lived, and we are now more or less stuck with the State of the Union as it is because, well, it’s a tradition.

As Charles Cooke notes, though, not all traditions are worth keeping:

Not every tradition is virtuous. America just endured a year-long general election from which it was impossible to escape, and an inauguration that was redolent of a coronation. We have a 24/7 media that never lets up. We have the Internet. What precisely is the argument in favor of the necessity of yet another set-piece speech? It is certainly not that it is mandatory. In Article II, Section 3, the Constitution requires that “[The president] 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.” Which modern president needed Constitutional encouragement to do this? Which has eschewed the bully pulpit with sufficient discipline to require being coaxed into speech by the law?

As Jefferson quickly noticed, the State of the Union speech is, at best, little more than a chance for the citizen-executive to play monarch commanding his parliament (this is how Wilson saw himself), and, at worst, a pointless round of free, adulatory publicity for one branch of the government. The optics are all wrong, rendering Congress a subordinate branch and the president a King. The charade indulges the human desire for pageantry, and that desire is probably insoluble. Nonetheless, trying to dissolve America’s penchant for caesaropapism is a worthy task whether it will be ultimately possible or not, and frustrated advocates of limited government and of the branches of government retaining some sense of equality might note that the State of the Union speech and the Imperial Presidency are inextricably linked. There is already a natural imbalance between the attention that can be paid to diffuse institutions such as the House and the Senate, and the concentrated focus that the executive’s being invested in one person allows. Why make that worse?

Those of us who express our opposition are often asked, “Why is it a bad thing to gather the three branches of government together for one night a year?” This, as put, is a reasonable question. But it requires another: “Gather the three branches to what purpose?” This evening, the other two branches will turn up mute, hear the president speak — often belligerently — and then they will leave. It is theater, like “Question Time” in the British House of Commons but without the back-and-forth wit or the right of response. And what of the public? Surely, there is a need for people to be informed? Indeed there is, albeit much less now that technology allows us to survey the political scene in real time. But is there a need for the president to do the informing? In a letter accompanying his 1801 report, Jefferson hoped that his missive would provide “relief from the embarrassment of immediate answers on subjects not yet fully before” Congress. A worthy thing, for sure. But out of date now. When was the last time a president did that at the State of the Union? When was the last time that the State of the Union actually reported on the state of the union? This is a campaign speech — nothing more, and nothing less.

Cooke is largely correct. The alleged benefits of the live State of the Union address are, as he notes, rather overstate. Modern Presidents have numerous avenues through which they can communicate with the American public and advance their policy objectives. There’s everything from addresses from the White House to campaign-like rallies, to the massive public relations campaign that the Obama White House has engaged in several times over the past four years to push forward initiative ranging from the stimulus to health care reform to the President’s position on taxes and fiscal issues. So, it’s not like tonight’s speech is the only time the President will be able to speak to the American public about what he wants to accomplish. Indeed, after tonight’s speech is over, President Obama will follow past example by going on a multi-state tour filled with rallies at which he’ll essentially say the same thing that he’s going to say tonight. Given all of the resources available to the President, getting rid of the State of the Union address would barely be noticed.

Eliminating the address would also go a long way toward stripping the American Presidency of the air of regal-ness that has surrounded it in recent years. More than one person has pointed out the similarities between the spectacle of the State of the Union and the spectacle that surround’s the monarch’s speech during the annual opening of Parliament in the United Kingdom. In both cases, you’ve a Head of State essentially dictating to the people what they want to do for the coming year. That may be okay for a Constitutional Monarchy like the United Kingdom, but it is totally inappropriate for a Constitutional Republic such as the United States. Our President is not a King, and the less we treat him like one the healthier it will be for the state of the union as a whole.

So, let the President send Congress a letter. Heck they can post it on the Internet for everyone to read. Then people can debate for themselves what the President is proposing without having it force fed to them by the media. In the meantime, my advice tonight is to watch something else or, if you do watch, just do it for purposes of mocking the absurdity of the spectacles we engage in to amuse ourselves.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Woody says:

    Yeah, there are some similarities with a monarch’s opening of Parliament. Since we don’t have a ceremonial monarch, some of the trappings have fallen toward the President*

    I rather like the SOTU. It gives Americans an idea of the policy agenda of the President. Yes, this can be rather easily found in the mass media and the Web, but most Americans don’t spend a great deal of their time reading up on policy (to be fair, neither do most political mass media figures).

    It’s also entertaining/irritating watching the morning politico gasbags the next day.

    *Prime Minister’s Questions remain the best political show on U.S. television.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    If the SOTU is to be kept, either it needs a lot more decorum or a lot less. Pomp and circumstance with all parties showing great deference and respect to each other would be elevating. Everybody throwing pies or water balloons at each other would be entertaining.

    What we’ve had lately is neither fish nor fowl.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  3. Dave,

    It wouldn’t work in our Constitutional system for many reasons, but that’s one of the reasons I do enjoy watching Question Time when C-Span runs it. Given the time difference it makes for some great early morning television viewing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  4. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    Guys, in three more years the n@@@@r will be gone and things will to back to normal. Try to be patient.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 15 Thumb down 13

  5. HelloWorld! says:

    I think we should keep SOTU and get rid of pundintry. Those idiots just cultivate division. SOTU is there as a means for the president to express where he is going with is agenda, and like it or not people who elected him should have an interest and opportunity to hear his point of view on how its going, without blowhard bloggers and pundints intepretting it for them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  6. PJ says:

    Keep it.

    But remember to strip search Ted Nugent.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 1

  7. C. Clavin says:

    You want to get rid of the SOTU.
    You want to get rid of the Inauguration.
    You cry like a little girl everytime the economy ticks upward.
    You should just move somewhere else.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 2

  8. @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    I hated the State Of The Union Address when Barack Obama was still in law school.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    Something I hate even more than the State of the Union address: the opposing party’s response.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 0

  10. rudderpedals says:

    Cooke wants to go back to the 19th century in this and so many other ways and Glenn Thrush whines too much about his job. What’s left to to support the outrage except maybe ennui?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: I love pies idea. Who doesn’t like pie?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  12. James Joyner says:

    @C. Clavin: I liked the Beatles’ version better.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: Yes. The notion that a presidential address to the nation demands “equal time” is a bizarre one, indeed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  14. Mikey says:

    I’d actually have to be dead to care any less about the SOTU and the opposing party’s response.

    Now, the pie-flinging idea, that has potential.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  15. anjin-san says:

    I hated the State Of The Union Address

    Do what I do. Don’t watch it. I also don’t watch the Grammys (unless I know someone who is getting one) and the Academy Awards (permanent boycott after Sally Field’s “You really love me” speech).

    But I don’t think we should get rid of them because I don’t like them.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 25 Thumb down 0

  16. stonetools says:

    Doug must be suffering from the Pauline Kael disease. He believes everyone follows politics on the Internet.

    First of all , everyone isn’t on the Internet and of those, relatively few read political blogs.But most people still watch prime time TV. If the President wants to communicate his agenda directly to the general public,by far the best way is still a televised speech in prime time. The SOTU is simply the best chance for the President to do this, especially since its right at the start of the year.
    So there you have it. The SOTU ain’t going nowhere, despite the desires of the political hipsters.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 0

  17. Surreal American says:

    Why can’t Barack Obama demonstrate true bipartisanship by letting Mitt Romney give the SOTU speech? Why must this President always rub it in the faces of his detractors by doing what other Presidents have done before?

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 31 Thumb down 1

  18. stonetools says:

    +1 for Question Time for the President as well. Most Presidents seem to hate press conferences, much less something like Question Time, but I think Obama would do pretty well at it.
    I remember him schooling the Republicans when he showed up for one of their conferences back in 2010, and took their questions.

    YOUTUBE

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  19. Just Me says:

    I haven’t watched the SOTU address in years. I generally find the important bits covered by the media and find in general that like most campaign speeches tends to be more about fluff than substance.

    SOTU has for years essentially been a campaign speech before congress.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. al-Ameda says:

    I’d get rid of the Republican House delegation.

    Seriously, I’m with Doug on this – it’s a paid political announcement, and I stopped watching it in real time years ago. Instead I watch the talking heads go over it afterwards, plus they play the highlights. It’s much better than listening to the entire address.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  21. Pharoah Narim says:

    At little mood music for Doug and James till BO departs in 2016–

    YOUTUBE

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. JKB says:

    So Obama gave the speech. Did anyone here what the state of the union is?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 9

  23. Andre Kenji says:

    I think that a good idea would be to allow the Chairmen and the Ranking members of the main Congressional Committees to make questions and talk with the President.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. john personna says:

    Wait … the Presidency is a political position?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  25. @anjin-san: I don’t know, the Grammy and Academy Awards are always good for looking over the nominees and wondering why the hell (“hell” used here to avoid the spam filter) anyone listens to or watches this crap (assuming I can even identify the song, group, or movie).

    You know, I was really hoping to making to 30 before I started complaining about the crappy culture.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  26. anjin-san says:

    @ Timothy Watson

    Well, I had the good fortune to grow up in a golden age of creativity. There is still a lot of good music to be found, but you have to look for it – certainly a change from the days when all you had to do was turn on the radio. Movies are shocking bad for the most part. Interestingly, TV is where a lot of excellent work is being done.

    I think the core problem is that media is almost totally dominated by huge corporations that look at what should be creative & commercial work strictly as a product.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  27. Jeremy R says:

    Best part of the SoTU was FOX taking seriously their unscientific, Bing internet poll which they self-freeped by directing traffic to all day. Instead of the glowing results that came from the other networks’ flash-polls, FOX got to report on what was apparently the worst stinker of all time — all negative results, among all demographics, and respondents of all parties.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  28. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @anjin-san:

    Do what I do. Don’t watch it.

    This. To all the SOTU haters. And debate haters. And Survivor haters. And Jersey Shore haters. Etc etc etc ad infinitum….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  29. @Jeremy R: Come on now, everyone knows that Internet polls are correct, just ask Ron Paul.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  30. bill says:

    it wouldn’t be bad is it was actually about the “state of the union” vs. another speech about “how great I am” and such. we can all see the real state of the union, and it’s still pretty stale after 4 yrs. oh, my taxes went up- great.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 5

  31. scott says:

    @anjin-san: OMG, looking back to the good ole days. Next you’ll be with McCain and shouting at kids to get off your lawn. Pls don’t let be get old!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  32. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @scott:

    Pls don’t let be get old!

    Getting old really sucks…. but it beats the hell out of the alternative.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  33. Tsar Nicholas says:

    What’s surreal is that if the political Internet devoted to reducing poverty, unemployment, crime and school dropouts even 1/10th of the time it spends trying to get rid of the pet peeves of its own demographic cocoons (e.g., airport scanners, drug laws, police frisks, “marital inequality,” inauguration pomp and circumstance, filibusters, SOTU addresses) the country might actually suffer an improvement or two.

    Detached demographics + idle time = misplaced priorities.

    That aside, since obviously we don’t have a real media SOTU addresses arguably are a lot more important now than they’ve been in the past. They give Zombieland a chance to hear the Prez’s objectives sans the filters of loopy and uneducated space cadets with agendas. Not that Zombieland necessarily will clue in and fully become sentient — it won’t — but at least there’s room for brief moments of clarity.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  34. G.A.Phillips says:

    Guys, in three more years the n@@@@r will be gone and things will to back to normal. Try to be patient.

    lol…this stupid clown shoe of an ***hat of a green Nazi won’t be able to keep his stupid idiots truth less mouth shut when He gets impeached or bull***** his way to the end of this term.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 15

  35. C. Clavin says:

    “…lol…this stupid clown shoe of an ***hat of a green Nazi won’t be able to keep his stupid idiots truth less mouth shut when He gets impeached or bull***** his way to the end of this term…”

    WTF?
    Seriously…You might think about professional counseling.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 0

  36. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: Says the guy who must spend at least two hours of every single day writing multi-paragraph screeds in the comments section of a political blog.

    If irony was a stock, I’d be shorting Gen Y. Or something.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  37. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Seriously…You might think about professional counseling.

    It’s too late for that. GA needs a frontal lobotmy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  38. Motopilot says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Getting old really sucks…. but it beats the hell out of the alternative.

    And getting old ain’t for pussies.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  39. G.A.Phillips says:

    WTF?
    Seriously…You might think about professional counseling

    .lol, says the Obama cult member…

    It’s too late for that. GA needs a frontal lobotmy.

    If it will make me forget about what I know about what you guys think and believe in, Give!!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 8

  40. Actually, we need to amend the Constitution to require the president appear in person before a joint session of Congress, but include in the amendment that there must follow the address a minimum of 90 minutes of “Question Time” like the British prime minister faces in Parliament.

    Now that would be a hoot! And the question time would be mandated to be allocated by time inversely proportional to the party proportions of the combined members of the Senate and House.

    You know, I started this comment as an attempt at humor, but now I think I really would like to see it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  41. James H says:

    Proposed new format:

    President Obama @Gongress Union strong, Boehnor orange lol. Approve nominees, plz. #SOTU #NoFilibusters

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  42. James H says:

    @Donald Sensing: Also, president must deliver all answers as limericks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  43. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Donald Sensing:

    You know, I started this comment as an attempt at humor, but now I think I really would like to see it.

    Make that 2 of us. except for the “allocated by time inversely proportional to the party proportions of the combined members of the Senate and House.” part. All I can see is a Dem or GOP version of the Hagel hearing…

    “BENGHAZI!!!!!!!”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  44. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @G.A.Phillips:

    If it will make me forget about what I know about what you guys think and believe in, Give!!!!

    Go to Bellevue, get in the 2nd line to the left. No charge.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  45. john personna says:

    Heh, the rest of the political internet is digging into proposals offered at the SOTU, while I guess Doug sits on his hands? lol

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  46. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @john personna: Obama made proposals? In a SOTU? Really? Now that’s thinking outside of the box.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  47. James in LA says:

    Ending the SOTU means nothing if Congress will not take back the obscene powers granted to the executive via the Patriot Act, authorization of forces, and indefinite detention/rendition, now spanning 50+ countries. This and all future Presidents are doomed and no speech is going to stop that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  48. Sandman says:

    @JKB: “So Obama gave the speech. Did anyone here what the state of the union is?”

    Stronger. Stronger than what has yet to be determined.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  49. Anonne says:

    @James in LA:

    Ending the SOTU means nothing if Congress will not take back the obscene powers granted to the executive via the Patriot Act, authorization of forces, and indefinite detention/rendition, now spanning 50+ countries. This and all future Presidents are doomed and no speech is going to stop that.

    This is the most sensible comment so far. There is no point, really, from a practical point of view if Congress continues to abdicate its checks on the Executive.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  50. Tyrell says:

    @anjin-san: The last time I watched the Academy Awards was when “Dr.Zhivago” won. I did like “Lord of the Rings”, but the people who do the voting started picking small, unknown pictures that most of the time do not attract many people to the theaters. I thought that they could have at least picked one “Star Wars” and one “Harry Potter” movie.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  51. An Interested Party says:

    Not that Zombieland necessarily will clue in and fully become sentient — it won’t — but at least there’s room for brief moments of clarity.

    Oh? I wonder when, if ever, you will experience such brief moments…

    Actually, we need to amend the Constitution to require the president appear in person before a joint session of Congress, but include in the amendment that there must follow the address a minimum of 90 minutes of “Question Time” like the British prime minister faces in Parliament.

    I’m sure the President would be up for that

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  52. bill says:

    plus, it was on “Mardi Gras”- are these the same dolts who scheduled obamas speech on the nfl’s opening night last sept?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0