Given the annual media uproar over the State of the Union address, you would think the event is something Americans always await with breathless anticipation.
But you would be wrong.
… theater of, by, and for the swampocracy…
Fact is, even in the midst of the current high-stakes political drama, the SOTU has long been just another in a long list of inside-the-Beltway fascinations. It is little more than theater of, by, and for the swampocracy, eagerly amplified by a national media just as insular as the political class. Regular Americans gaze upon the proceedings with hard-earned skepticism that any of the items on the president’s laundry list will be achieved. They have seen this movie so many times before: politicians trying to outdo other politicians by oozing insincere unity for the cameras and then a few minutes later returning to their tribal roots, robotically standing and cheering — over and over and over — or sitting motionless while projecting sour disapproval or faux outrage at each of the myriad lofty ideals proclaimed by the president.
Has this always been the case? Perhaps you envision images of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln standing in the ancient chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives and delivering stirring orations sure to be recorded in the annals of American history. Again, you would be wrong, but only partially.
President Washington delivered the first regular message before a joint session of Congress on Jan. 8, 1790, in New York City, then the provisional U.S. capital. But in 1801, Thomas Jefferson discontinued the practice of delivering the address in person because, he said, it too closely resembled the act of a monarch. Instead, the address was written and then sent to Congress to be read by a clerk until 1913.
President Woodrow Wilson then decided to revive the tradition of delivering the SOTU in spoken form. In the age of television and now the internet, it has grown into a spectacle. But unlike so many other actions of the federal government in modern times, it can at least be said that the president is fulfilling a constitutional obligation, based on Article II, Section 3 of the nation’s charter:
[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.
Customarily, one Cabinet member does not attend the speech, to assure continuity in the event of a catastrophe that kills or disables the president, the vice president, and others in the line of succession to the presidency gathered in the House chamber. This practice was the basis for a recent ABC primetime television show, Designated Survivor, about an obscure, low-level Cabinet official (played by Kiefer Sutherland) elevated all the way to the Oval Office after the U.S. Capitol was bombed.
Even though these national speeches generally are forgotten soon after delivered, and are of little ultimate consequence because they occur many months removed from the next elections, across the years there have been memorable SOTU moments.
Most famously in recent times, President George W. Bush called North Korea, Iran, and Iraq the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address. President Bill Clinton declared in 1996 that “the era of big government is over.” In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson first announced his “war on poverty.” In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined his “Four Freedoms.” In 1823, President James Monroe first wrote about his still-famous Monroe Doctrine.
As for factoids to stump and amaze your friends at the next cocktail party, did you know that Warren Harding’s SOTU speech in 1923 was the first one broadcast on radio, and Harry Truman’s in 1947 the first on TV? That Herbert Hoover was the only president in the last century to forgo a State of the Union speech? That the first such address by a new president elected just weeks before is not officially considered a SOTU address? That the speech was mostly delivered during daytime hours until the 1960s? That the State of the Union was moved from the end of the year to the beginning after passage of the 20th Amendment, which pushed the start of a president’s term from March 4 to Jan. 20?
There is one other factoid you may now know in light of recent events. Because the address is made to a joint session of Congress, there must be a formal invitation issued from the Speaker of the House to the president. This had always been a formality — until this year, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) disinvited President Trump in retribution for the partial government shutdown and/or in fear of granting him the bully pulpit. We shall see whether her fears — or hopes — are well-founded, as the 45th president delivers what is, even by Washington standards, perhaps the most anticipated State of the Union address of recent times.