Editor’s Note: Our resident presidential historian, Big Mo, has submitted this timely piece on the gratuitous State of the Union address. But if there were no SOTU, there could be no SOTU bingo!
By Big Mo
If Sarah Palin runs for president and is elected, I would love for her to refuse to participate in the annual farce known as the State of the Union Address.
For more than 100 years, there was no live State of the Union address. America had no dog-and-pony show where the president enters the House chamber like a prizefighter and members of Congress jump up repeatedly as if their chairs had springs.
During his administration, Thomas Jefferson skipped speaking directly to Congress and started doing what should be done once more: He sent a written report on Congress concerning the state of the union. Woodrow Wilson revived the live in-person report, and it gradually turned into the farce that it is now.
The Constitutionally mandated end-of-the year reports—delivered at, you guessed it, the end of the year—were read to Congress and served to give an update on what the executive branch had been doing the past year. The reports discussed the government’s receipts, spending, foreign policy efforts, items of national import, war updates, constitutional questions and more. Quite literally, they were reports on the previous 12 months.
Some were dry, some were matter-of fact, some urged action on this or that issue, and some were actually soaring with prose. For example, Lincoln’s message to the Congress in 1862 contained some memorable language. (And in fact, his 1862 report and James Buchanan’s 1860 report are two of the most critical documents in America’s history relating to secession and slavery.)
But now? They’re laundry lists of spending items. They’re opportunities for presidents to score points. They’re photo ops. They’re often snore-fests. They’re sometimes grossly partisan. About the only good part of these spectacles comes when the president identifies a few citizens and/or military personnel sitting with or near the First Lady, and briefly discusses their deeds. Compare an annual state of the union report by, say, Ulysses S. Grant or Grover Cleveland to one given by G.W. Bush or Bill Clinton. The former are actual reports. The latter are thinly veiled campaign addresses and political theater disguised as performing a Constitutional mandate. And sorry, a president saying that “the state of the Union is strong” or words to that effect is not a report.
Very rarely does a president actually need to speak directly to the assembled Congress. He should do so on rare occasions of great national import, such as Wilson in April 1917, FDR on Dec. 8, 1941, and Bush on Sept. 20, 2001. (Of course, the president can call Congress into session, but that’s another matter entirely.) The president shouldn’t use the SOTU address to make a campaign speech. Essentially, they’ve become such partisan affairs that they’re a waste of time. Obama going before Congress in 2009 and begging it to pass health care is not a good reason.
In short, these SOTU are less useful than the political conventions. They let the talking heads yap and yammer, but in the end, we know just about as much as we did before the president spoke. The SOTU has become akin to a fantastic “Popeye” cartoon in which Olive Oyl dreams that she is president. While she is speaking to Congress, the donkeys (the Dems) in unison cry “We accept it!” while the elephants (the Reps) counter in unison, “We reject it!” (And vice-versa.) In other words, we know that one party will applaud, the other party generally will not, and the media will spin the farce depending on what party the president belongs to.
Last year, President Obama made what could justifiably be labeled the nadir of the SOTU with his Alfred E. Newman political tirade against all the dumb people who just don’t accept his shining brilliance. Only Justice Alito’s mouthed “Not true” was the only part of that silliness that was worthwhile. This year’s speech was little different, despite the spin of the pundits that Obama is turning to the center and Obama’s disingenuous calls for civility.
It’s time to retire this farce, and return the republic to a state where the president sends a dignified, written report to Congress. A President Palin or a conservative president aligned with Tea Party could do the republic a great service by refusing to participate in this annual silliness.