The State Of The Union Isn't Even Supposed To Be A Thing

Going to a watch party, drinking one too many beers, inhaling ten too many wings. For many Americans, tonight’s State of the Union address felt an awful lot like this Sunday’s Super Bowl will.

Except tonight may have been more entertaining, and almost longer, too.

Lost in the hoopla is the curious fact that for most of America’s history, the State of the Union hasn’t been a “thing” — and certainly not a media spectacle the way it has been for 40 years.

Like many norms of modern America, Americans of yore would be confused and even unsettled by the modern State of the Union, from the wall-to-wall news coverage, to Americans’ interest in the President’s notes to Congress, to the very speech itself.

So what?

Fair point. After all, elements of America’s past culture were worse than the present. Many Americans of yore would be confused and unsettled that a black man was president. But norms change and cultures evolve. Such is the stuff of a growing society.

But the State of the Union is different.

It’s different because journalists say, and thus people believe, that what we saw tonight is part of America’s constitutional nature, that the president’s annual drive down Pennsylvania Avenue is a sacred ritual on par with the separation of powers and three-branch structure of the federal government.

But that is false.

The Constitution says precious little about the State of the Union.

Article II, Section 3 says 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 broad instruction has been varyingly interpreted since 1790, when President George Washington addressed a joint session of Congress on January 8 in New York City, then the provisional capital.

But President Thomas Jefferson, in 1801, decided that an in-person speech to Congress was too akin to an emperor’s “speech from the throne.” And, after all, Congress is designed to not only be separate from the president, but to counterbalance his powers.

So Jefferson wrote an address that a clerk read to Congress, and thenceforth that was every president’s practice.

This “Annual Message,” noted British Ambassador to the U.S. James Bryce in an 1888 book, “has not necessarily any more effect on Congress than an article in a prominent party newspaper.”

It was, in other words, not a thing.

Until 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson aptly recognized that a widely publicized address to Congress could infuse his progressive legislative agenda with needed political capital.

But just as the root of many of America’s ideological maladies can be traced to Germany, many of its political maladies were born in Wilson’s presidency.

Wilson’s December 2, in-person Annual Message, came eight months after a speech on tariffs that he delivered at Capitol Hill. That address disconcerted Americans and Congress itself. It was simply unbefitting for a president to apply executive pressure to Congress — on Congress’s turf.

That had been America’s political tradition for well over a century.

But Wilson was, if anything, a breaker of norms.

He didn’t like that most lawmaking began with Congress.

And he didn’t like the Constitution’s separation of powers because, well, it limited his own.

Recall how difficult it was for President Obama to (legally) enact his ambitious progressive agenda after Democrats lost control of the House in 2010.

So, Wilson pushed Congress to get on his side — and pushed and pushed and pushed, in five more Annual Messages.

And thus was born a new American tradition, albeit a fluid one. Calvin Coolidge’s first Annual Message was delivered to Congress, but only his first. His remaining five were written, as were all four of Herbert Hoover’s.

Every single one of Franklin Roosevelt’s Annual Messages were delivered in person to Congress, and it was during his third of four terms that people began to informally call the address the “state of the Union.”

Since Roosevelt, only four times has a president written an address to Congress in lieu of delivering a State of the Union — Harry Truman in 1946 and 1953; Dwight Eisenhower in 1961; and Jimmy Carter in 1981.

Donald Trump’s address was the 32nd consecutive State of the Union that a president has delivered in person to Congress.

Is this new norm a good thing?

In light of the Constitution’s vague instruction (“from time to time,” “recommend to their Consideration such measures”), the interpretation of Article II, Section 3 is certainly left to the president’s and Congress’s discretion. And, after all, no one forced people to tune in tonight. In fact, given the speaker, most Americans cleared their calendars.

But perhaps every president between Thomas Jefferson and William Taft understood something that is hard for modern Americans to understand.

It is that American political life is not meant to revolve around any one man, Democrat or Republican.

We would do well to remember this as we analyze this year's Super B -- sorry, State of the Union.


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