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Here’s The State Of The State Of The Union Address


The television spectacle, the pompous rhetoric, the counting of applause lines, the media spin, and, if it is particularly entertaining, a “you lied” shout from the House floor or reaction of scorn from a Supreme Court Justice: Such is the state of the modern State of the Union address. Yet, it wasn’t always so.

Article II of the U.S. Constitution grants the president the power, “from time to time, to give the Congress information of the state of the union.” However, it does not determine the vigor with which a president will approach this duty.

George Washington and John Adams presented modest State of the Union addresses to Congress in person, discussing the principles of the union but eschewing any attempts to influence legislative decision-making. Interestingly, both houses of Congress would reply to these speeches in written form, and the president would respond in kind. It was constitutional deliberation of the highest kind. These first two State of the Union addresses reflected the founders’ desire for truly co-equal branches of government, including a presidency that was powerful but limited to its constitutional powers and duties.

Thomas Jefferson ended this modest, in-person presentation of the State of Union to Congress, seeing it as too much a kingly affection. Instead, he sent the State of the Union to Congress via written message, a precedent that held for almost one hundred years. Jefferson’s actions corroborate the desires of America’s founders, who feared the rise of popular demagogues, those who—as Publius wrote in “The Federalist Papers”—would “begin their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

A Progressive President Revives the State of the Union Event

It is no coincidence that Woodrow Wilson was the first president, in 1913, to revive the practice of giving the State of the Union in person before a joint session of Congress. For Wilson, what was needed in the presidency (and what he saw as lacking for most of American history) was the need for individual presidential Leadership—with a capital “L”—that could interpret popular opinion, rise above the antiquated separation of powers, and Lead the people forward.

For Wilson, rhetoric served as the key to articulate what ‘is in our hearts’ and not necessarily what is in the Constitution.

For Wilson, rhetoric served as the key to, as he wrote, articulate what “is in our hearts” and not necessarily what is in the Constitution. The president would use his rhetoric to speak over the heads of members of Congress directly to the people, attempting to sway public opinion towards his proposals and forcing Congress to move in his direction.

This understanding of the State of the Union address is now the norm, regardless of party affiliation. The speech has evolved (to use a word Wilson would appreciate) into a major media event where the president presents long laundry lists of proposals he wishes to see enacted.

How President Obama Should Treat the State of the Union Address

For President Obama to deliver a State of the Union address that reverses his downward poll numbers and rebounds from his midterm repudiation, he would do well not to present himself as the “Leader” of the country, attempting to tell Congress what the people want, but to instead present himself as a constitutional statesman, making constitutionally-based arguments and engaging in thoughtful deliberation with the newly elected Congress.

A statesman seeks to achieve stature in public office through toning down divisions and appealing to reason, not simply attempting to win the fight of the day by practicing the little arts of popularity.

A statesman is someone who understands constitutional principles, leads by way of those principles, and seeks to make those principles work in political life. He seeks to achieve stature in public office through toning down divisions and appealing to reason, not simply attempting to win the fight of the day by practicing the little arts of popularity.

Indeed, George Washington was praised because he never turned into a “Leader.” He voluntarily stepped down after two terms and enhanced the people’s capacity to govern themselves. He became—as Charles R. Kesler once wrote—the Father, not the Führer, of his country. Statesman-like rhetoric, then, would seek to unite rather than to divide, instruct rather than flatter, and to promote constitutional objectives, not prop up popular desires.

Thus, for a weakened president like Obama, his best source of strength is not from attempting to influence popular opinion, but from grounding and articulating his actions, and the goals of government in general, in a Constitution that both the Left and Right claim to venerate.

So as President Obama prepares to deliver his seventh State of the Union address, the choice before him is clear: to continue the same “Leadership” model that shows signs of fatigue or to find strength in his constitutional powers and the statesman-like rhetoric the founders envisioned. If he embraces the latter, that would be change we could believe in.