On Tuesday evening, at just after nine o’clock, an American citizen will give a political speech, and for a brief moment the media’s world will stop turning on its axis. Dropping what they were doing, every news station will broadcast his words live; a cabal of quick-draw analysts will wait in the wings to defend or to attack his ideas; the newspapers and opinion journals will start the process of dissecting it nine ways to Sunday; and, after the dust has settled, the White House will declare victory. Meanwhile, admirably disinterested in such things as it is, the public will mostly tune out.
And yet, as latently as they may be aware of the details, most will accept its occurrence as if it were mandated by nature itself. They should do no such thing. As a matter of basic constitutional propriety, there is something unutterably rotten about the State of the Union. The essential principle of the American settlement, Thomas Jefferson confirmed in a 1797 letter, “is that of a separation of legislative, Executive and Judiciary functions.” And as far as possible, he added, it is incumbent upon “every friend of free government” to keep it that way. Why, then, each and every January are we happy to watch the head of the executive branch walk slap bang into the middle of the legislature and deliver an unchallenged, immoderate, and entirely self-serving lecture about himself and his desires? Why do we permit one branch to issue a campaign speech in the heart of enemy territory? How do we imagine we are serving the interests of fractured government by assembling all of its moving parts in one place?
Within the English system of government — in which the executive and the legislature are fused — such an arrangement would make perfect sense. Within the Madisonian system, however, it is little short of preposterous — especially when one considers that the legislature is accorded no opportunity whatsoever to push back. Explaining his decision to abolish the practice in 1801, President Thomas Jefferson contended that the new country should not tolerate a pageant so similar in nature to the British Speech from the Throne, and announced instead that he would be fulfilling his constitutional duties in writing. Hoping to forestall what he would later describe bitterly as the “mimickry” of “royal forms and ceremonies,” Jefferson instead elected to forsake the “pompous cavalcade” and to eschew all of those “forms and ceremonies” that were “not at all in character with the simplicity of republican government.” Henceforth, Jefferson hoped, the report would be delivered on paper.
This reticence was both admirable and radical, serving not only as a rare example of a powerful man willingly limiting his own grandiosity — and as a salutary lesson in how the separation of powers should be regarded by all — but helping also to calibrate the political expectations of a people who remained unsure as to whether one could actually run a successful nation without putting a monarch or a Great Man at the helm. That the practice that Jefferson strangled was eventually resuscitated by that outspoken enemy of republican virtue, President Thomas Woodrow Wilson, should frankly worry anybody who is concerned about the maintenance of political balance in America. Champions of the legislature might be alarmed, too, to learn that, after the infinitely laudable Calvin Coolidge had reversed Wilson’s course, the spoken address was brought back once again by the most imperial of all America’s imperial presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The State of the Union, we might say, is a Jacksonian rather than a Jeffersonian game.
Increasingly, alas, it is an Obaman one, too. Since the practical consequences of his 2010 electoral “shellacking” became clear to him, the president has spent a good amount of his time mocking the legislature’s claims to power — and, in such instances as it has had the audacity to disagree with him, promising to ignore it completely. “If Congress won’t act,” Obama has threatened over and over again, “I will.” And yet, in spite of these provocations, large swaths of that same legislature are at present preparing to smile and to holler and to applaud their great leader — even, it can be guaranteed, when he is explaining to them how he intends to usurp their prerogatives. Last year, major players in both the Senate and House wrote letters to Obama in which they actively pleaded with him to make an end run around their institution. “What we want,” Luis Gutierrez confirmed spinelessly, is for the executive branch to forget Congress and to “act big, act bold, act broadly, and act soon.” A few short weeks later, the president did. What was Gutierrez’s reaction? Delight.
This, I’m afraid, is rather instructive. For all the heady disregard that modern presidents have shown toward the established limitations of their office, a great deal of the blame for our predicament must be placed at the feet of Congress itself. It has long been the case that American presidents are possessed of opportunities that are unavailable to those in the legislative branch, and, as the culture has changed, this imbalance has only grown more acute. Because there is just one chief executive, his words inevitably puncture and carry, in a manner that the disparate messages of the 535 members of the federal legislature never will. Moreover, with the advent of mass media, of Huxleyan attention spans, and of celebrity worship, the asymmetry has become even more pronounced than it was at the time of the Founding. As it stands, President Obama has a considerable structural advantage over Congress, and knowing this to be true, is entering the twilight of his presidency in the expectation that he will profit from it. It can certainly not be hoped that this chief executive will limit himself in the name of abstract, Jeffersonian principle — nor, for that matter, is it likely that his successor will, either. But why, one has to wonder, does Congress continue to applaud the charade?
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.