The latest bit of shutdown theater emerged yesterday as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi informed President Trump that he will not be invited to the House chamber to deliver his state of the union address as long as the government remains in partial shutdown.
Pelosi may have intended her action as a fit of pique, but she has accidentally stumbled onto an excellent idea for restoring some of the republican simplicity lost in the rise of the imperial presidency. Trump should accept her decision and make it permanent. We should return to the practice of delivering the state of the union report by letter, not by a public speech.
Every president since George Washington has reported to Congress on the state of the union in some form or another. It is one of the few specific acts that the Constitution requires of the president. But the Constitution says nothing about a speech. Its text requires only that the president “from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” It doesn’t have to be annual, it doesn’t have to be a public speech, and it doesn’t have to involve the pomp and pageantry of the president addressing a joint session of Congress in one of their legislative chambers.
Washington interpreted the Constitution’s language as a take on the British government’s Speech from the Throne and delivered the first state of the union address in person in 1790. He did the same thing the next year, establishing the precedent of the message being delivered annually. For the first 12 years of the republic under presidents Washington and John Adams, that was how it went.
But the practice soon exposed one major difference between the British government and ours. Although the monarch has the final say over his speech, Britain’s version is written by the cabinet, which means that the speech reflects the legislative priorities of the party that controls the House of Commons. This is often not the case in our government. In many cases—including in 2019—the president is addressing a House or Senate that may be hostile to his agenda.
Besides that more practical consideration, the obvious analogy to a monarch’s speech bothered some early Americans, especially those in Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party. These men, more so than the Federalists who held sway under Adams, believed in a meritocracy and a nation of independent yeomanry. Added to that was their increasing hostility toward Britain as the Napoleonic Wars divided American opinion, with the Jeffersonians preferring republican France to monarchical Britain.
When Jefferson became president in 1801, he ended the British-inspired tradition, opting instead to deliver a copy of his message to the clerks of the House and Senate, who then read it aloud to the assembled members. Delivering the message by courier remained the standard for more than a century.
When Woodrow Wilson entered the White House in 1913, however, he sought to revive and expand the annual message. He included more legislative proposals in addition to the traditional recitation of how the government had functioned over the past year. The once-staid message now became a manifesto of the executive’s policy preferences. Wilson also decided to deliver it in person.
Wilson continued the in-person addresses until he was incapacitated by stroke in 1919. His successor, Warren Harding, had campaigned on a “return to normalcy” after the tumult of the Wilson years, but he kept up his predecessor’s tradition of addressing Congress in person. Calvin Coolidge did the same when he succeeded to the presidency after Harding’s death in 1923, but only for one year.
Beginning in 1924, Coolidge reverted to the less pompous method favored by Jefferson, Lincoln, and most other presidents, delivering his second annual address by messenger. (Coolidge was not completely resistant to change, however: his 1923 address was the first carried over the radio.)
It is not surprising that he should do so. Coolidge’s presidency was a throwback in many ways, and a reaction against the rapid, radical changes of the Progressives who had preceded him. He was the last president who did not see himself as an elected king, and it is natural that the taciturn, traditional New Englander would recoil from the pageantry of a speech from the throne, whether or not it was so named.
The change did not last. When one thinks of an imperial presidency, Franklin Roosevelt is among the first chief executives to come to mind. In 1934, the same year he celebrated his birthday by dressing up as a Roman emperor, Roosevelt delivered the annual message to Congress in person. Although presidents have occasionally reverted to the courier method, every president since FDR has delivered the vast majority of his annual messages in person.
The address has become a part of America’s political tradition again since 1934, but its effects have not been altogether positive. The speech itself is almost always boring. Presidents assemble a laundry list of legislative priorities and string them together without much coherence in theme. There is no suspense, since the ideas are all leaked to the press in the weeks in advance, and the speech itself contains little artistry or rhetoric. It’s just a list of things the president wants Congress to do.
Ronald Reagan’s innovation in delivering the state of the union address was to acknowledge guests seated in the gallery. Since Reagan began doing so in 1982, it has become as much a part of the speech as the policy proposals. It was an inspired stroke, but now that every president does it, it is just more of the same.
A Rose Garden speech with a particular notable person, added to a brief address on whatever policy is related to that person, would have far more impact. Instead, the guests and ideas are all rolled together in an unremarkable word salad that goes on forever.
All of this leaves us with a boring, interminable speech that smacks of monarchy—exactly the opposite of what the American people want. President Trump has shown that he has an instinctive grasp of language and a keen sense of new technology. Love it or hate it, his Twitter account helped make him our 45th president. Trump should understand as well as anyone that the state of the union address is a dead medium, wrapped up in monarchical pretense that clashes with his populist leanings.
Trump should take Pelosi at her word and cancel the state of the union address—forever. He should make policy speeches as they are needed and deliver the constitutionally required “information of the State of the Union” on paper, as Jefferson did. But let’s consign this royalist behemoth of a speech to the history books where it belongs.