End the State of the Union Spectacle

The first President of the United States, George Washington, gave the first ever State of the Union on January 8, 1790, at Federal Hall in New York City. He addressed both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and to many modern readers, it might appear to be reminiscent of the modern State of the Union Address. However, following Washington’s administration and John Adams’ four years in power from 1797 to 1801, President Thomas Jefferson ceased giving the speech to Congress, and instead handed to the Congress a written report of the state of the nation. In fact, this change was made by Jefferson due to fears of this act appearing monarchical, especially with the State of the Union being reminiscent of the British monarch opening the new parliament and making policy mandates, rather than recommendations. For over a century, the State of the Union became a written exercise, often read to Congress by a supporter of the President, rather than the President himself. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson restarted the tradition of speaking before the Congress, and since then, every President has given a State of the Union Address before a Joint-Session of Congress.

The State of the Union, of course, has evolved since the reintroduction of the President actually giving the speech. The advent of radio and television further evolved the report of how the nation was doing into a political spectacle. Although it allowed for the speech to become more accessible to the general public and allowed for the commander-in-chief to show off their oratory and discuss their policy platforms to the public at large, it has since become a glorified infomercial to the party in power at the White House. It has become a symbol of how much power the executive branch wields in today’s America. Now, the speech has transformed into a media spectacle. Politicos and media figures report on who “won” the State of the Union. They use live polls to determine which lines were popular to voters, and which ones were not. They look at who had been most vociferously been supporting the President, and who had sat down through most of the address. Finally, they use short scenes from the speech to show who had the best zingers or jokes like it was a comedy roast.

At a time when the President of the United States wields significant power beyond what the Constitution allows, it is clearer that Jefferson was prescient in seeing what the State of the Union address could do to the office. Like a monarch decreeing new laws and demanding policy changes from the parliament, the President demands from Congress total support for their initiatives. Rather than being a unifying event for the nation, and informing the Congress and the public of the state of the union, the speech instead has become a glorified infomercial. The President’s party stands in support, every line or two being divided by at least twice as much time as applause, while the other half of Congress sits and pouts. Whenever a Democratic President gives the address, his party stands and the other sits, even heckling in the case of South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson during Barack Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address. During a Republican President’s address, his own party stands while the Democratic Party sits down. The opposite party then gives a usually poorly received response, often simply a pre-written speech touting that own individual’s accomplishments with the hopes that they might be a rising star in the party, rather than a legitimate response to the President and offering a countering point of view on the issues facing the country.

It is my strong belief that this spectacle needs to end. The political brinkmanship that is tearing our country apart needs to end, and the State of the Union often serves as a symbol of that division. On national television during one of the most watched political speech every year, Americans see the increasing political division within their elected government. This year’s State of the Union, which will be given by President Donald Trump on February 5, 2019, even became a political issue during the 2018-2019 government shutdown that saw 800,000 workers furloughed. The address became a political football between President Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Although readers will know of my strong political opposition to the President, he should have like his predecessors simply sent a written State of the Union. It would have been a refreshing change of pace for a public fatigued by the state of politics in the United States, and would have forced the media to drop treating politics like it was a sport and instead like an institution that impacts millions of people.

This shift, however, is unlikely under President Trump, who appears to desire any attention from the media regardless of its support or opposition towards him. In a few months, the first debates for the Democratic primaries will begin. A lot of fresh faces in politics will be running, as will younger people who might be interested in change. One question that should be asked to them is whether or not they will give the traditional address to Congress, or in a show of reducing the power of the executive branch simply hand in a written address on how the country is doing. At a time where the executive order has become a replacement for legislation, and Presidents merely threaten declaring a national emergency to get their way, we need an American leadership that does not relish in media attention, and one that recognizes the rise of the Imperial Presidency that began over a century ago. For the sake of reducing the continued divide among Americans over our politics, the State of the Union as we know it needs to end.

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