Thomas Jefferson had it correct. The Constitution requires a report to Congress on “the State of the Union,” but it doesn’t require Congress to treat the head of the co-equal branch of government like a Roman emperor returning on a triumph.
Jefferson sent Congress a letter, which set a tradition that lasted a hundred years-plus. Jefferson worried in 1801 that a presidential appearance would blur the constitutional lines and give the appearance of imperial royalty:
George Washington and John Adams interpreted the command as an instruction to appear in person; Washington delivered his first annual message to Congress on Jan. 8, 1790, though such a speech wouldn’t be widely known as a State of the Union address until many years later. But Thomas Jefferson started a new tradition by deciding to send his information in written form via messenger. In this 1801 letter, from the collections of the National Archives, he explains his reasons: it’s inconvenient to give a speech, it takes more time than reading and it robs legislators of the ability to think before responding.
Jefferson’s new tradition of delivering the State of the Union address in writing would endure for more than 100 years, until 1913, when Woodrow Wilson revived the tradition of giving the speech in person. Ever since, the written option became less common as radio and then television spread.
It’s yet another reason to consider Wilson one of the worst presidents in our history, although far from the strongest arguments.
In the modern televised era, the SOTU spectacle has become everything Jefferson feared, but with the cynical twist of utter hypocrisy. Members of Congress re-enact the zombie-swarm scenes of World War Z when a president enters the chamber, hoping to get a mere touch of the executive whom half of them despise, and who routinely causes half of the other half to grind their teeth at night. They fete the president who likely can’t get most of his agenda on the floor of the same legislature as though he just conquered the vast hinterlands of Gaul.
And that’s just the entry, mind you. The speech is even worse. Almost without exception, State of the Union speeches are nothing more than campaign addresses with free air time provided by Congress for the boost. Nothing gets said that presidents don’t say on the stump, and most of it is utterly pointless — as the same joint session that leaps to its feet after every sentence is also mainly uninterested in the president’s agenda.
One might conclude that this absurdly obsequious display from the Article I branch reached its nadir in 2020. The same Congress that had impeached Donald Trump once and would do so again almost exactly a year later gave him the conquering-hero treatment nonetheless, a scene so hypocritical that it destroyed any meaning of the ceremony. As I wrote three years ago:
Tonight at 9 pm ET, Donald Trump makes history by becoming the first president in the middle of an impeachment trial in the Senate and a national re-election campaign to deliver a State of the Union Speech to a joint session of Congress.
The surreality of the spectacle won’t get fully appreciated until Trump gets called into the chamber and advances to the dais in the quasi-imperial manner of these events. Bear in mind that the House managers and their Senate allies have spent the past few weeks accusing Trump of acting like a king or dictator. The very same chambers will, if they stick with tradition, treat him with more pomp and reverence than a Roman emperor coming home at the head of a triumph.
In this, I am firmly non-partisan. It doesn’t matter who the president is or what party he represents; their SOTUs are pointless embarrassments to federalist principles. With the singular exception of the first half of George Bush’s 2002 SOTU, in which he reported on the 9/11 attacks, nothing memorable or effective comes from these events. And even then, Bush had a much better speech in a joint session of Congress in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks than the SOTU speech a few months later.
I hold no illusions about this tradition reverting back to the constitutionally upright Jeffersonian model. There isn’t a chance in hell of it happening, of course. Especially in the modern era, too many incentives exist for this annual imperialism prom. The incentives for the president are obvious, but the party leaders in Congress want to elevate it for presidents of their own party to take shots at their opponents. The media wants it because it gives them a chance to pursue their own narratives as well as produce fake drama out of the pomposity of the SOTU. No one wants to admit that the substance of a SOTU is in direct proportion to the fuss made over it.
Honestly: does anyone remember any specific item from last year’s SOTU? Do you expect to remember any specific items from tonight’s Biden speech a year from now? A month from now? Friday?
In exchange for nothing at all of substance, we get the degradation of the co-equal legislative branch of the government bowing and scraping at the feet of the executive for a couple of hours. As Jefferson predicted, it’s basically Prom King for a Day, a contribution to the very real imperial expansion of the presidency over the last several decades, combined with Congress’ retreat from its duties in both lawmaking and executive accountability. Thanks to the inexorable expansion of agency law — another reason to dislike Wilson — Congress has ceded most of its authority to the executive branch anyway. These annual Roman triumphs didn’t cause that, but it certainly seems to celebrate it, and to perpetuate the imperial status of the modern American presidency.
I’d be tempted to vote for any presidential nominee that pledged to end this constitutionally corrosive spectacle. I’d rather vote for a Congress that refused to provide the circus tent altogether, but as I wrote above, the incentive structure makes it difficult for all but the most devoted small-R republicans to resist. Alas.
Tonight, David will live-blog the speech and the pandering. I promise you that you will remember David’s commentary far longer than you will remember Biden’s pablum. He’ll be including Twitter commentary from all of us in his analysis, although we may need a tip jar to buy him enough caffeine to get through it all.
In the meantime, Andrew Malcolm and I preview tonight’s speech, and discuss a lot more in our latest episode of The Ed Morrissey Show podcast:
- What can we expect to see in tonight’s SOTU? Not much other than the usual: the stomach-churning obsequiousness, the banal droning, the substance-less use of 90 minutes … and that’s just the media coverage of Joe Biden.
- We also discuss Biden’s China Spy Balloon fumble, as well as the trial balloon floated by Democrats in the New York Times about dumping Kamala Harris in 2024.
- We also have a new approach to the jokes of the week! (And no, that’s not a reference to Joe Biden. Or is it?)
The Ed Morrissey Show is now a fully downloadable and streamable show at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, the TEMS Podcast YouTube channel, and on Rumble and our own in-house portal at the #TEMS page!