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State Of The Union Address Obsolete

NPR‘s Linton Weeks asks “Is The State Of The Union Address Obsolete?

Traditionally, the speech — an annual where-we-stand lecture delivered by the president to a joint session of Congress — has for decades been an opportunity for the professor in chief to issue a national report card and put current events in calm, codifiable context.

In the past, it was a monumental moment — surrounded on each side by a few days of national reflection — in a relatively quiet and slowly whirring world

These days, however, there is no time — nor inclination — for a pause in the process. America is a comically sped-up motion picture, not a snapshot. America is a bullet train, not a diner. America is the river rapids, not a reflecting pool.

Everybody knows all the time what President Obama thinks about everything, from the White House website and countless other political sites, TV shows and press reports. And everyone knows what everyone else thinks about the president — and the state of the union.

[…]

The State of the Union address, says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, “is a big production that matters for a whole 24 hours, or less. But we all play along.” He says, “I’m serious in that I don’t believe State of the Union speeches have any long-term or even medium-term effect, and increasingly so.”

Sabato is not alone in questioning the worth of the address.

“It is time to end the meaningless annual ritual of the State of the Union address,” historian Lewis Gould wrote in The Washington Post in 2006. “What began as a yearly survey of the nation’s condition has deteriorated into a frivolous moment of political theater and continuous campaigning.”

This is quite right. In a 24/7 media climate, there is no single presidential thought that isn’t endlessly aired and debated.

Beyond that, I find the pseudo-monarchial trappings of the speech increasingly repellent. We’re in the midst of an election campaign to decide whether Barack Obama gets to keep his office another four years and yet, for 90 minutes or so, we’re supposed to pretend that he’s our king. The entirety of both Houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs, and the Cabinet–minus, of course, some token unelected apparatchik kept in a safe location somewhere to reconstitute the government in the event a Japanese airliner rams the Capitol– is supposed to clap like trained monkeys while the Campaigner in Chief delivers a partisan stump speech thinly disguised as a plea for national unity. Or, essentially, an insinuation that criticizing the president is somehow unpatriotic.*

In recent years, those who haven’t been played along–a Joe Wilson correctly but inappropriately yelling “You lie!” and Associate Justice Samuel Alito shaking his head at the demagoging of a Supreme Court decision and mouthing “Not true”–have created short term firestorms that overshadowed whatever it is that the president said.

Given that a president can get live coverage of pretty much any speech he gives anywhere, any time, it’s time to end this charade altogether. Give an Oval Office speech if there’s monumental news, like the starting of a war or the killing of Osama bin Laden, to share with the country. Hell, address Congress in Joint Session if there’s really a reason to do it. But enough with the ritual, set piece speeches.

_________________
*Note that this is not a specific criticism of the current president. This is simply how the game is played, regardless of the person or party in power.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. I wholly agree.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think the speech is going away.

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  2. I’ve made the point before. The Constitution does not require a speech to Congress, it merely requires the President to keep Congress informed on the state of the union “from time to time.” Starting with Thomas Jefferson and continuing for more than a century, Presidents merely sent a written report of sorts to Congress which was read aloud by the Clerk of the House. The modern pageantry of the SOTU came to us beginning with Woodrow Wilson, as did many other actions that vastly expanded the power of the Presidency beyond its intended boundaries.

    Sadly, I agree with Steven that this pointless affair is not likely to end any time soon and, if nothing else, it provides an excellent opportunity for mockery of public officials which can be quite healthy.

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  3. @Doug Mataconis: Indeed, I think some (if not all) of Washington’s SOTUs were written as well (but my memory may be faulty and I am too lazy to look it up).

    In terms of it evolution, we can’t discount the significance of technology: radio and then television.

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  4. murray says:

    “for 90 minutes or so, we’re supposed to pretend that he’s our king”

    It actually starts with inauguration day. Nothing looks more like a coronation than an American presidential inauguration.

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  5. superdestroyer says:

    A couple of other points/

    1. Oratory is dead in the U.S.. Political speeches are a couple of shouted lines followed by forced applause.

    2. TV made it into dump theater. Who is sitting next to the first lady, who is sitting along the aisle that the President walks down. It is stupid.

    3. The talking points are released early and the speech is just not serious. It is just part of the “messaging” of the White House.

    4. It is a form of prom for the political class.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  6. Fog says:

    I agree. The SOTU just diverts attention from the Republican Nomination Clown Show. I mean, governing is not just hard, but often boring. Why distract my beautiful mind for that? I’m more interested to see if Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, et al. can all fit into that little car.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  7. Lomax says:

    I haven’t watched this thing since the ’70’s. This is a wasted time for everyone. Why not just some form of a “fireside” chat with maybe some call ins from viewers. SOTU is a wasted two hours – a campaign speech. How about the president, speaker of the house, and president of the senate sit down and talk about their ideas to get this country out of a hole. How about the president and about 7 citizens picked at random from across the country discuss their problems and their ideas?
    I think the ideas of the common people are much more sensible then anything you would hear in Washington these days.

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  8. As long as the SOTU gathers eyeballs, and perhaps in more importantly in our age, online recapitulations, it has value.

    I expect high SOTU rank on Memeorandum tomorrow, which means it still works in this age, anyway.

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  9. @john personna: True. But the same could be said of an Oval Office speech or any other subset of possible presidential actions.

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  10. James H says:

    Can’t he just send Congress a PowerPoint and make the slides available online?

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  11. Tano says:

    I completely dsagree.

    I think that the need to give this speech imposes on the President and the executive branch a certain discipline – to organize and bring into focus all the policy trajectories that are underway in the various departments. It forces the President to assimilate all that and to construct a coherent narrative for what his Administration is trying to accomplish (of course, this does not necessarily mean that Presidents succeed in doing so).

    I think this is a crucial vehicle by which the President can exert political leadership. As the only official elected by all the people, it is the responsibility of the President to construct and propose a governing narrative. Even if the speech resembles a laundry list, and even if the President is thwarted in his attempts to accomplish the major items on the list, the speech does serve to lay out the context in which the political battles are to take place over the next year.

    Without this event, the political landscape would be one long, muddle, with the national conversation getting bogged down in deep and well worn tracks. The speech is an annual opportunity to reset the landscape, to redefine the vision and the goals, to reinvigorate the process. I think it would be a very bad thing if this were abandoned.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 2

  12. James H says:
  13. James Joyner says:

    @Tano: The argument would have more salience if the speech was, say, 20 minutes. That would be more than enough time to outline priorities and make the case. Instead, we get a ridiculous laundry list of pie-in-the-sky promises about ending our dependence on foreign oil and so forth.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  14. @Tano: Actually, the thing that forces the president’s hand in this regard is the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which requires the president to submit an annual budget to the congress. The laundry list that the president presents at the SOTU is reflective of that document, on balance.

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  15. (Also, I would argue that your are arguing for the idealized version of the the speech, not what it typically ends up being).

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  16. Rob in CT says:

    I never watch the thing.

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  17. Tano says:

    @James Joyner:

    The argument would have more salience if the speech was, say, 20 minutes.

    That is, of course, a very different argument – how long the speech should be, ideally, as opposed to whether it has any inherent worth in the first place.

    I’ll certainly not argue against the virtues of brevity, but I think this a minor point. Yes, we have a large government, and many foreign concerns and interests, and they all get a shout-out. The extra 40 minutes or so, above the ideal, once a year, is hardly worth mentioning.

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  18. Tano says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I would argue that your are arguing for the idealized version of the the speech, not what it typically ends up being).

    Actually, I do think that the speech usually does succeed in doing just what it is supposed to do – reset and redefine the agenda, and provide a certain governing vision. That it be somewhat bogged down in a laundry-list presentation is a rhetorical critique.

    I think this is an extremely important and necessary exercise. Without it we would have four-year long stretches of poorly defined muddling inbetween presidential elections.

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  19. Kevin says:

    You are over thinking this in a a huge way. Is it largely theatre? Sure. Does it do any harm? No.

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  20. alkali says:

    I like the Spitzer proposal regarding the use or a PowerPoint. I don’t know that the speech needs to be 20 minutes, as Spitzer suggests, but it is ridiculous to think that a speech without any visual aids whatsoever can seriously convey information about (for example) the state of our economy or economic policy.

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  21. mantis says:

    In a 24/7 media climate, there is no single presidential thought that isn’t endlessly aired and debated.

    By a relatively small portion of the population, yes. A lot more people watch the SOTU address.

    We’re in the midst of an election campaign to decide whether Barack Obama gets to keep his office another four years and yet, for 90 minutes or so, we’re supposed to pretend that he’s our king.

    By maybe watching a speech? I don’t think that makes a monarchy, even a pretend one.

    The entirety of both Houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs, and the Cabinet–minus, of course, some token unelected apparatchik kept in a safe location somewhere to reconstitute the government in the event a Japanese airliner rams the Capitol– is supposed to clap like trained monkeys while the Campaigner in Chief delivers a partisan stump speech thinly disguised as a plea for national unity.

    Partisan stump speech? That doesn’t sound like a king to me. Kings don’t belong to political parties. They are the crown.

    But enough with the ritual, set piece speeches.

    I’m not necessarily in disagreement with your main point here, but you’ve presented a piss poor argument for it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  22. Paul Littlewitz says:

    We’re in the midst of an election campaign to decide whether Barack Obama gets to keep his office another four years

    The campaign is already so damn long, without a speech of this sort you exacerbate that problem and end up with a president doing campaign speeches as a “candidate” when that is not what he is… he is the president and should be able to speak to the american people in that capacity and not as a campaigner.

    I know many people have decided that he should not “get to keep” his job, but he has it and all the pomp is a recognition of that fact.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  23. Robbie says:

    I assume you made the same argument when GWB was in office?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  24. Rael says:

    There’s a lot of spin out there today about the SOTU. Watch former US Comptroller Dave Walker’s Fiscal SOTU to hear the truth about our nation’s dreadful economic state – and learn what the president should be doing to lead us out of this mess.

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  25. J. L. Bell says:

    @Robbie: I looked up Mr. Joyner’s comments on George W. Bush’s 2004 speech (i.e., when he was running for reelection). Oddly enough, words like “repellent” and “pseudo-monarchical” didn’t appear, though the review did express the same complaints about length and a laundry list of initiatives. Evidently listening to this President produces a more visceral reaction for Mr. Joyner.

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  26. @J. L. Bell:

    Evidently listening to this President produces a more visceral reaction for Mr. Joyner.

    Or (as has been the case with me): blogging about this every year (or being acutely aware of the speeches because of the blog) has further evolved his views. I have become more negative about the SOTU over the last half-dozen years as well (and it is a bipartisan attitudinal change).

    Granted, James can address his own position as he sees fit.

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  27. James Joyner says:

    @Robbie: @J. L. Bell: @Steven L. Taylor:

    Yes, it’s partly a function of having grown tired of the theatrics over the years. It’s partly, too, a reaction to the various controversies that have erupted with recent speeches and my general concern that we treat presidents and other high officials with too much pomp–exacerbated by my commuting in and out of DC and having to endure the inconveniences of same.

    Mostly, though, it’s a reaction to the NPR column posing what seems like a good question in light of the above. Sometimes, one just doesn’t question something that’s normal until someone asks Why.

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  28. @Robbie:

    Much like James I think, there was a time where I was actually interested in watching the SOTU and would blog about it with the seriousness that the Talking Heads on television all insist that it deserves. The more I’ve actually paid attention to it, though, the more the ridiculous pageantry has come to annoy me. Additionally, as I’ve studied the issues surrounding the development of the Imperial Presidency, it’s become more apparent that the SOTU is indeed far too much like the Queen’s Speech From The Throne and I don’t think that its a coincidence that it was Woodrow Wilson who broke the 100 year tradition of simply sending an annual written message to Congress to fulfill the relevant Constitutional duty.

    As for the Obama v. Bush question, I can’t say that I really cared much for Bush’s last few SOTU’s either.

    Will I watch tonight? Maybe, unless I find something better to do but it’s likely to be more to mock the entire nonsensical tomfoolery than anything else.

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  29. Brummagem Joe says:

    It commands audiences of around 40 million. Would Jim like to tell me how this compares with other tv events. Hardly obsolete. What would our political experts Jim and Doug rather Americans be watching. American Idol?

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  30. Brummagem Joe says:

    And btw Jim as of right now he is our king or at least head of state. Unless you want to change our system and reinstall the monarchy that’s reality.

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  31. @Brummagem Joe:

    People can watch whatever they please I honestly don’t think the fate of the Republic hinges on what they watch for an hour tonight.

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  32. James Joyner says:

    @Brummagem Joe: We’re a Republic. The president serves as head of government and head of state, since no one else is there to serve in the latter role. But that function should mostly be reserved for international relations. Members of Congress and Supreme Court justices–and, indeed, the janitor–should view him as their social and political equal.

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  33. Ward Mundy says:

    Funny how this obsolescence came to pass only when the you-know-who got elected. Bet the State of the Union address will be the best thing since sliced bread once a Republican is living on Pennsylvania Avenue.

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  34. Michelle says:

    @James Joyner: If they viewed this president as their social and political equal, perhaps they would behave better. With the theatrics from republicans and conservative SCOTUS members here lately, I believe they think they are his betters. You hear it every day if you are listening.

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  35. Nikki says:

    @Michelle: Thank you.

    Pagentry, James? Monarchy? Wilson and Alito’s reactions during the SOTU were unheard of prior to Obama’s presidency. There is correlation.

    Hey, James? Get used to it for the next 4 years.

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  36. Neo says:

    “An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.”

    Besides ripping off the first part from Ford, this sounds racist by the measure used for comments by Republican candidates.

    But you have to give “The Man” credit for coming up with the idea that future “means-testing” for federal programs should not be based on the money you save during you lifetime.

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  37. Warren Piece says:

    @superdestroyer: Yep. Used to laff at politicians pretending to suddenly be in love and Doing The Wave. Now it just pisses me off. How can anyone take this American Idle show seriously?

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  38. You know what I’d love to see someday? Some president show up to the SOTU, completely without forewarning, with a boring powerpoint presentation actually on that state of the nation (“And moving on to slide 14, financials, we can see that for fiscal 2020 revenues continued to increase, although at a rate below the recente trendline…”), just for the complete DOES NOT COMPUTE response from the assembled congress, journalists, and pundits.

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