Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Constitution: The State of the Union

One of the annual high points of political theater here in Disneyland-on-the-Potomac is the President's State of the Union address (the SOTU, delivered by the POTUS, as insiders call it) to a joint session of Congress.

As I discussed in my post on Article II of the Constitution, which enumerates the powers of the Executive Branch of the government, the Constitution really doesn't give the President the authority to do much of anything without the "advice and consent" of Congress. One of the few actually enumerated duties of the President is this one, spelled out in Section 3 of Article II:

"He 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 many years, the President communicated this information to Congress in writing. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson didn't want to appear before Congress in person because he believed it was too much like the British king's addresses to opening sessions of Parliament in which he (the king) delivered instructions and mandates, rather than providing information and seeking support for his measures. It's only in the fairly recent era that presidents have appeared in person to deliver a live address (not like they'd deliver dead ones). You can read a brief history of the State of the Union address here, and read every single State of the Union address ever presented here.

State of the Union speeches tend to be more political theater than informative discourse. In an era of non-stop, 24/7 news delivery, leaks of information to the press (either deliberately by the administration or maliciously by various insiders), and an unbridled and raucous free press, there's no element of surprise ... no news, as it were ... in a SOTU. The draft of the SOTU is circulated widely throughout the government for review and comment weeks ahead of time, and so - by the time the President stands at the rostrum to start talking - everyone already knows what he is going to say, and whether they'll jump up and applaud wildly at the right places (this year, like the Democrats) or sit on their hands and glower angrily (this year, like the Republicans). Indeed, well before President Obama delivered his SOTU this past Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner had already described it as "pathetic."

Has the SOTU outlived its usefulness in the all-information-all-the-time era? I believe it has, at least as we've grown used to it. All it does is give Presidents a chance to look presidential, opposition parties to growl out their "response" to the president's message with bile and false sincerity, and piss off television audiences who see their favorite shows displaced. I think that regular communication between the President and the Congress, perhaps in the form of something like a written monthly or quarterly activity report, would accomplish more and reduce the level of useless theatricality.

It won't happen, though, because there's too much opportunity for all that political theater. Presidents love to be on television, Congress loves the opportunity to mug for the cameras, and we've all come to expect the annual ritual.

But I still like my idea better.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



craziequeen said...

A Facebook SOTU? [wink]
Reach the whole world in seconds... :-)


eViL pOp TaRt said...

The annual SOTU address may be a carryover from an earlier time in which news traveled slowly. How many people really watch it?

Duckbutt said...

The State of the Union address has diminished to the point of mere theatre. I think Boener's pre-speech remarks were so transparently partisan that it was embarassing. Except some people are incapable of shame.

allenwoodhaven said...

Your idea is a great one! Many politicians wouldn't even pay attention unless their staffs read it for them...

Mike said...

'political theater'

That's why I don't bother watching anymore.