For 102 years, between 1801 and 1913, there was no State of the Union speech, just a written report of varying length, content, and purpose. For this we can thank President Jefferson, who, seeking to take some of the pomp out of a presidency that had been inflated at first by Washington’s natural charisma and deserved reputation and then by John Adams’s ugly penchant for the trappings of monarchy, refused to deliver his report with his voice. In doing so, Jefferson set an admirable precedent. Complaining that the address was redolent of the British Speech from the Throne and that it smacked of the Old World excesses that the American revolution had sought to blunt, Jefferson executed his constitutional duty in his own hand, writing to Congress from the safety of the White House. He was right. The State of the Union speech is unbecoming of a republic, and, in our media age, what poor arguments once struck in its favor have been dissolved by the ubiquity of the executive. The State of the Union address should be relegated to writing once again.
Jefferson’s happy settlement lasted for just over a century, until, in the heady progressive climate of 1913, Woodrow Wilson brought the damn thing back. Given Wilson’s attitude toward limited government, toward the Constitution, and toward the American settlement, that it was he who did this should raise alarm bells even in the ears of the speech’s defenders. With the admirable openness that marked his unadmirable hostility to America’s founding ideals, Wilson announced that he would restore the speech because it was fitting for a strong and king-like president with an agenda — in other words, he directly reversed Jefferson’s logic. A brief respite followed the Wilson administration: After delivering his first in person, Calvin Coolidge agreed with Wilson’s characterization of the event, and, wishing to be anything but a king-like president, re-abolished the practice, delivering the remainder of his reports in writing and setting an example that was followed by his successor, Herbert Hoover. But it wasn’t to last. FDR had higher pretensions and brought the speech back. With a few exceptions (none based on principle), it has stayed with us ever since.
As Jefferson quickly noticed, the State of the Union speech is, at best, little more than a chance for the citizen-executive to play monarch commanding his parliament (this is how Wilson saw himself), and, at worst, a pointless round of free, adulatory publicity for one branch of the government. The optics are all wrong, rendering Congress a subordinate branch and the president a King. The charade indulges the human desire for pageantry, and that desire is probably insoluble. Nonetheless, trying to dissolve America’s penchant for caesaropapism is a worthy task whether it will be ultimately possible or not, and frustrated advocates of limited government and of the branches of government retaining some sense of equality might note that the State of the Union speech and the Imperial Presidency are inextricably linked. There is already a natural imbalance between the attention that can be paid to diffuse institutions such as the House and the Senate, and the concentrated focus that the executive’s being invested in one person allows. Why make that worse?
Those of us who express our opposition are often asked, “Why is it a bad thing to gather the three branches of government together for one night a year?” This, as put, is a reasonable question. But it requires another: “Gather the three branches to what purpose?” This evening, the other two branches will turn up mute, hear the president speak — often belligerently — and then they will leave. It is theater, like “Question Time” in the British House of Commons but without the back-and-forth wit or the right of response. And what of the public? Surely, there is a need for people to be informed? Indeed there is, albeit much less now that technology allows us to survey the political scene in real time. But is there a need for the president to do the informing? In a letter accompanying his 1801 report, Jefferson hoped that his missive would provide “relief from the embarrassment of immediate answers on subjects not yet fully before” Congress. A worthy thing, for sure. But out of date now. When was the last time a president did that at the State of the Union? When was the last time that the State of the Union actually reported on the state of the union? This is a campaign speech — nothing more, and nothing less.