After watching President Obama’s State of the Union address this evening it struck me what a sham this annual fiasco has become. What was originally intended to be information given from the president to the Congress has turned into a political sideshow. Celebrities attend as guests of Congressmen and the media takes glee in reporting who will be attending. One might almost expect Billy Crystal to step out from behind the curtain to announce who the next presenter will be. The president and first lady also have their own guests in the gallery; people they use for sob stories or to point to as successes for their programs. The carnival atmosphere is sickening as the Congress gathers ’round to hear the president tout his supposed successes, outline his agenda, make threats and pander to the electorate. With every other sentence drawing a standing ovation from one party or the other the address meant to provide the Congress with information has turned into a politically divisive event that only highlights the divide in our country. All the while, the media swoons over their favorite politicians and either praises the great words of the president if Democrat or criticizes his every sentence if Republican.
United States Constitution, Article II, Section 3 – He 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.
Historically, the State of the Union has not always been delivered orally to the Congress. For over one hundred years the State of the Union message was delivered in written form to the Congress. Woodrow Wilson changed this practice in 1913 and opted to deliver his message orally. Since that time, with few exceptions, presidents have appeared before Congress to deliver their messages in person. President Wilson’s 1913 address is an interesting read and quite different from the style of address given to today’s Congress. A sample paragraph follows.
I shall ask your indulgence if I venture to depart in some degree from the usual custom of setting before you in formal review the many matters which have engaged the attention and called for the action of the several departments of the Government or which look to them for early treatment in the future, because the list is long, very long, and would suffer in the abbreviation to which I should have to subject it. I shall submit to you the reports of the heads of the several departments, in which these subjects are set forth in careful detail, and beg that they may receive the thoughtful attention of your committees and of all Members of the Congress who may have the leisure to study them. Their obvious importance, as constituting the very substance of the business of the Government, makes comment and emphasis on my part unnecessary.
Although I consider Woodrow Wilson to be one of our worst presidents and perhaps the first real liberal of modern American politics, his address to the nation is an example that the presidents and Congresses of today should follow. No lines designed to draw applause or standing ovations. No self-congratulatory pats on the back. No threats to act unilaterally and unconstitutionally. No pandering to certain voting blocs. No bald-faced lies about failed programs. No guests to point to in the gallery to illicit emotional responses. And no celebrities.
The State of the Union address was never intended to be the president outlining his agenda to the nation and making demands of Congress to pass this bill, extend this funding, reform this, create this program, etc. As directed by the Constitution the president is merely to provide Congress with information and make recommendations. Especially under President Obama it seems the annual appearance before Congress has turned into a King-like event, further dispelling the fact that the President as head of the Executive Branch and the Congress are both equal branches of the government and, thus, are to provide checks and balances over the other, as well as the Judiciary. Presidents Washington and John Adams both personally appeared before Congress to deliver their reports, but President Jefferson declined to, citing concern that appearing before the people’s representatives was too similar to the British practice of the monarch addressing each new Parliament with a list of policy mandates instead of “recommendations.” After watching President Obama’s address this evening I believe Jefferson’s prescience about presenting the annual report in person could not have been more correct. Woodrow Wilson would be the next president to appear before Congress in person.
Perhaps in years to come all pretenses about the State of the Union being an annual report will disappear and it will be presented to the public for what it really is – a show. The State of the Union Show Starring President _____ (fill in with current president). Celebrities will appear and walk the red carpet into the Capitol building, dancers will twerk, gay couples will be married by a Supreme Court Justice, the lights will dim and a popular actress will appear in a scandalous outfit to introduce the president, who will tap down the aisle in top hot and tails. Yes, I know, it sounds ridiculous. Maybe. One hundred years ago, the carnival atmosphere of tonight’s State of the Union would have sounded ridiculous to President Wilson and to the Congress. But here we are.