The State of the State of the Union

Scott McLemee traces the evolution of the State of the Union address from George Washington's day until our current moment.

January 25, 2019
President Trump delivers the State of the Union address in January 2018.
(Getty Images)

A couple of weeks back, the president dismissed reports of chaos in the White House, tweeting, “The Fakes always like talking Chaos, there is NONE. In fact, there’s almost nobody in the W.H. but me …”

The statement has a logic and eloquence worthy of Yogi Berra. It also lends some credibility to my hunch about the State of the Union address: faced with a new Congress and the duties of ownership accompanying his government shutdown (not to mention brooding over the unrelenting but inscrutable special counsel investigation), chances are good that the speech had slipped his mind altogether until the Speaker of the House brought it up. Her call for the speech to be postponed until after the shutdown -- or for the president to submit it to Congress in writing, perhaps -- was chum for the cable news cycle. And with “almost nobody in the White House,” the task of managing the Oval Office calendar may have fallen by default into the hands certain on-air personalities who brief the president each day during those long stretches of “executive time.”

However this part of the chess game plays out, a glance at some of scholarship on the annual address seems timely. Article II, Section III of the Constitution clearly frames the speech as a duty imposed by Congress rather than a right or privilege of the executive branch. The president, the article instructs, “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” For most of the country’s history, that information was presented with none of the trappings we now associate with the State of the Union. George Washington and John Adams went about it as a job to be performed rather than an occasion to be celebrated -- covering foreign and domestic policy and military affairs in speeches that cannot have taken much more than half an hour to read. Thomas Jefferson did them one better. Nothing in the Constitution required that the report to Congress be delivered as a speech, and the third president made a point of submitting his in writing -- establishing a precedent that lasted until Woodrow Wilson took office in 1913.

For more than a century, in other words, the annual SOTU (as it's sometimes called, along the lines of POTUS and SCOTUS) was addressed to Congress in the form of a memo. An influential paper called "The Rise of the Rhetorical Presidency," appearing in Presidential Studies Quarterly in 1981, treats the early history of the address as an outgrowth of the founders' deep suspicion of mass oratory. (The paper had four authors -- James W. Ceaser, Glen E. Thurow, Jeffrey Tulis and Joseph M. Bessette -- and seems to have aged remarkably well.)

Whether demagogic or lofty, oratory tended, in the founders’ view, to "undermine the rational and enlightened self-interest of the citizenry which [the constitutional] system was designed to foster and on which it was thought to depend for its stability." The skillful orator gave “expression to transient, often inchoate public opinion,” generating “constant instability as leaders compete with each other to tap the latest mood passing through the public.” The relative taciturnity of Washington and Adams in their addresses to Congress was in keeping with this cautious approach -- as was the practice, adopted by their successors, of submitting longer and longer documents to explain the constitutional grounds for a president’s policies and actions.

The needs of representative government be met and the minds of the citizenry edified -- mutually, and in that order of priority.

Wilson’s decision to revive the format of an annual speech to Congress rested on a clearly defined alternative understanding of political life. The president, Wilson wrote a few years before taking office himself, “has no means of compelling Congress except through public opinion.” He grasped the almost dramatic implications of assessing the State of the Union out loud and in person -- its potential to generate and direct currents in public opinion. In effect, it meant addressing the nation over the heads of Congress. Radio would soon make it possible to do so both literally and in real time.

Another article appearing in Presidential Studies Quarterly, Ryan L. Teten’s “Evolution of the Modern Rhetorical Presidency: Presidential Presentation and Development of the State of the Union Address,” finds a couple of measurable differences between SOTU addresses pre- and post-Wilson. The most striking appears in a graph of the number of words per address. There are peaks and troughs throughout the 19th century but with a pronounced upward tendency overall, maxing out during the Taft administration (1909-1913) with a document running to 28,000 words. Wilson’s return to oral delivery registers as a massive deflation; over the course of the 20th century, SOTU addresses average around 5,000 or 6,000 words.

At the same time, there is a pivot in how frequently “inclusive” words -- times when a president uses “we” or “our,” speaking as, or on behalf of, the entire country -- appear in SOTU addresses. Between 1790 and 1912, they rarely amount to more than one half of 1 percent of the total number of words used; they spike to about 2.5 percent during the world wars. After that the chart zigzags quite a bit. (Evidently presidential speechwriters became wary about using “we” or “our” between 1967 and 1973.) But in general, deploying inclusive language became standard practice after Wilson's SOTU reboot in 1913.

SOTU's power as mass-media event underwent a quantum leap in 1965. Until then it had been delivered to Congress during normal workday hours. LBJ set a new precedent by scheduling a State of the Union for the evening, to be broadcast live during television’s prime-time hours. In their book Addressing the State of the Union: The Evolution and Impact of the President's Big Speech (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006) the political scientists Donna R. Hoffman and Alison D. Howard treat the State of the Union address post-1965 as more than the "means of compelling Congress … through public opinion," as Wilson put it. It's become less a function performed by the president than an occasion for expanding and reinforcing the powers of the office.

That is not part of the design, any more than the live broadcast of pomp and circumstance on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives is a venerable tradition of the republic. But the authors of "The Rise of the Rhetorical Presidency" saw it coming from a distance.

As they wrote back in 1981, "The media has found in the presidency a focal point on which to concentrate its peculiarly simplistic and dramatic interpretation of events; and the presidency has found a vehicle in the media that allows it to win public attention and with that attention the reality, but more often the pretense, of enhanced power. What this two-sided relationship signifies is a change in the rhetorical context in which the President now operates, the implications of which extend beyond the question of how much power the President has to the issue of how he attempts to govern." And the result they anticipated is all too familiar now: a situation of "TV 'speaking' to the President and the President responding to the demands and moods that it creates."

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