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How did an annual report to Congress become the State of the Union address, a formal state occasion? We discuss.

- February 5, 2019

Andrew Rudalevige: It’s State of the Union time! Where — “from time to time” — like presidents and legislators in the House chamber, scholars of Article I and Article II come together and provide information about said state. As in the House chamber, of course, Article I scholars are reminded of the tradition of giving standing ovations to Article II scholars. (In between occasional screams of “you lie!”)

Today, in that tradition-laden spirit, I join with my colleague Sarah Binder to discuss tonight’s State of the Union address.

Sarah Binder: We might start by noting that the SOTU address is really more a duty than a power. If you peer behind the curtain, you realize that the Constitution offers the president very few formal tools for influencing Congress. But it’s also one of few constitutionally mandated avenues for the president to use to shape Congress’s legislative agenda.

Luckily I have my pocket Constitution with me, as I always do, so I’ll just quote the pertinent line here: “and recommend to their [Congress’s] consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” It doesn’t, of course, say that Congress and the president have to enact those measures.

In any case, as I’m rallying students of Article 1 to give Article 2 students their standing O, tell me a bit more about how the SOTU has developed over time.

AR: Well, it’s true that, while it’s set out as a duty, over time, presidents realized they could use this forum to lay out an agenda, and to put a spotlight on, well, themselves. Thomas Jefferson decided not to give an in-person speech, deciding the symbolism of a president arriving in Congress was too monarchical. But, for Woodrow Wilson, that was more or less what he liked about it. His vision of the presidency was one that effectively placed the chief executive at the center of the action, telling Congress what the national interest required. The SOTU provided symbolic ratification of the president’s singular position of leadership — that is, one leader above the mass of legislators gazing up at him adoringly from the House chamber.

Presidents’ opportunity to stage that sort of show focused on themselves and their goals only increased with radio, then live television (moving to evening prime time in the 1960s). We can see how much they value the event in how quickly President Trump caved when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told him he was free to send over a written State of the Union message if he wished — but that he couldn’t use the stage offered by the House of Representatives until the government reopened. He wanted the full pomp and circumstance for his moment in the media spotlight.  

SB: Andy, last year you wrote that Trump may be the president who puts an end to SOTU once and for all. Do you still see that ahead, or did your mind change after the president’s faceoff with “Nancy” about whether he could give his speech in the House chamber?

AR: I just reread that piece, and it’s pretty good! In fact, I give permission to current readers to skip over there, because I used up most of my good points last year.  

The point, though, for those still with us, was that Trump does not need the SOTU to focus attention on his rhetoric. After all, his daily tweets are republished across the media landscape. Given that the 2018 SOTU did not really fulfill another traditional function of the speech — laying out a systematic, specific legislative program flowing from the constitutional invitation Sarah noted above — what is its value-added? Is it simply televised applause in a gilded chamber? This is one reason Purdue University president (and former Republican Indiana governor) Mitch Daniels and others have said it “must go.”

SB: Is this the right time to fess up that I’ve never made it awake through an entire SOTU? On a typical evening, I go to bed way past midnight. But on a SOTU night? I’m snoozing about 25 minutes in.  

Of course, that means I’m awake for the best part: when Articles 2 and 3 join Article 1 in the House chamber. Outside of inaugurations, our separated institutional branches — which, under the Constitution, have to share most of their powers — keep their distance from one another. So while most SOTU addresses put me to sleep, I think it would be unfortunate if this unique institutional moment were to bite the constitutional dust.  

AR: Sarah, you argued here that the shutdown was a battle fought in the arena of public opinion about who was going to take the blame for bringing government to a halt. How did Pelosi’s move to temporarily disinvite the president to the Capitol contribute to the president’s decision to reopen the government, at least for now?

SB: Well, certainly the White House and perhaps even the president recognized as the shutdown wore on that the public largely thought the president was to blame. It also seems likely that Pelosi’s move to delay the SOTU threw the president off kilter.

First, I suspect he did not know that the speaker could disinvite him — or that both chambers have to adopt a resolution inviting him to address a joint session. Second, given the president’s eye for branding and staging, the prospects of losing a prime-time opportunity for nationwide attention might have helped persuade him to fold. That said, I suspect that the prospects of Republicans deserting him was what really did the trick in forcing him to cave without any commitment from Congress to fund a border wall.

By the way, despite events, will the president say that the state of the union is “strong”?

AR: It is not 1975, so, yes. (Gerald Ford that year was the only president — ever? probably — to say the state of the union was not strong. It didn’t get good reviews.)


Andy, does the speech rally any support for the list of proposals delivered at the SOTU, or is it just a way of forcing the executive branch to press each agency to report on their own agendas and align themselves with the president’s goals?

AR: The SOTU can indeed be a vehicle for imposing the president’s agenda on the wider executive branch. But it goes the other way, too: The fact of the occasion forces the White House to decide what the president’s agenda is in the first place. As Richard Neustadt noted, “Speeches and the like are not merely vehicles for expressing policy, they are devices for getting policy decided.” So preparing them involves “not only the power that goes with choosing the words but also the power that goes with presenting the issues for decision.”

There is not much evidence that presidential speeches actually change public opinion on questions where people already have firm views. They can help raise the salience and facilitate enactment of legislation in areas where consensus can be forged. The border wall, needless to say, is probably not one of those. So here’s hoping that Trump’s tease that he will declare a “national emergency” during Tuesday’s speech — telling Congress to its collective face that he is ignoring its power of the purse — is simply to build ratings.

So — which is more important, what the president says or the statements made by who the various political figures invite to sit with them — super-achiever DACA students, Joe the Plumber, and so on?

SB: These snapshots of the guests are probably all that most of us even remember about most SOTU addresses. That’s not surprising. SOTUs often devolve into long laundry lists of proposals, making it hard for most presidents’ words to compete with the stories and images of the guests. And this year, news reports suggest that many House Democrats have guests who will help them to highlight their own legislative agendas and to implicitly criticize Trump’s policies — especially on immigration. This tactic could dilute some of the limelight ordinarily enjoyed by presidents during the SOTU coverage.   

AR: Last year the speech was barely five minutes old before the president had turned to the gallery. This does have the advantage of guaranteeing bipartisan applause — but it also means very worthy people are used merely as props, and as substitutes for the hard work of writing a good speech. Which to be sure is a tough ask in a SOTU anyway.

So, last question: What’s your favorite SOTU text from the past, if any?

SB: Lincoln, 1862: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” If Lincoln had delivered that SOTU in person at the Capitol (which was under construction), I totally would have stayed awake until the very end.