Monday, January 28, 2019

Thinking about the State of the Union

One of the subplots of the recent faceoff between the Speaker of the House and the President of the United States (who represent two Constitutionally defined, equal branches of the government) was the suggestion (later confirmed) that Donald Trump not present his 2019 State of the Union address on January 29th, as originally planned. Much ink has been spilled and many digital bits rearranged over this dispute, some of which actually made useful and valid points. Here's my take on the issue ...

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution states that the President

"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"

It does not specify how the President will provide this information - in writing, as a formal speech to Congress, as a PowerPoint briefing, carved on stone tablets, or whatever. The first two Presidents delivered their reports in person in the form of short (by today's standards) speeches. Thomas Jefferson sent his report in the form of a letter to Congress, because he believed that an in-person speech focused too much attention and granted too much personal power to the President. This began a tradition that lasted until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, who chose to deliver his report in person. Every President since Wilson has done the same.

Because the State of the Union address (or "SOTU" in government shorthand) has become less of a useful report on the state of affairs and more of a political media spectacle with each passing year, some observers have argued that the time may have come for a return to the Jeffersonian tradition of delivering the report in writing. I can see arguments both for and against such a change.

On the one hand, a formal, written report can contain much more detail, including appendices with background information and evidence, draft legislation, and so on. It can be read and digested with the benefit of sufficient time to consider the information, rather than being analyzed on the fly by on-air shouting heads. The focus would be on the content, rather than on the theatrics of the presentation. I believe this form of presentation would provide a much more useful and robust product to Congress.

But on the other hand, I believe it's important for Americans to see their President standing in front of Congress to make the case for his (or, eventually, her) policies. I love public speaking and enjoy listening to a good, well-constructed speech. Unfortunately, our current Chief Executive is incapable of delivering a coherent formal address without veering wildly off the rails, even if he had coherent policies and plans for which to make a case.

So I'm torn.

On balance, though, I think the better option would be to return to the practice of delivering the Constitutionally-mandated provision of information to Congress in writing. It would allow for a better and more comprehensive report while avoiding the useless public relations spectacle into which the modern State of the Union address has devolved. Particularly in the case of Donald Trump, who believes anecdotes and innuendo make a better case than facts and evidence, it could force a more realistic look at the actual state of the union and propose more appropriate legislative initiatives to improve it.

I think it's time to move away from the State of the Union Address and toward a more useful State of the Union Report. What's your opinion? Leave a comment.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.



Grand Crapaud said...

A nice, well-written report, please!

Political oratory is a much-overused approach.

Mike said...

I can't stand the jumping up and clapping no matter what party is in power. I'll let the news people tell me what they say after it's over.

John Hill said...

Trump would just use the national platform to host a televised campaign rally filled with lies, over exaggeration, and name calling where he brings embarrassment and shame to the US. He should NEVER be given such a platform.

allenwoodhaven said...

I agree. even if we had better orators, the congressional and national audiences are too ready to clap, dismiss, or shout "you lie". If people had to read an actual report, there'd be less inflammatory commentary.

Elvis Wearing a Bra on His Head said...

It's time to stop speechifying as a means of disclosing the state of the union to Congress.

And not just for Trump. Just stop it. Period. Send a message.

KathyA said...

I agree with John Hill. Forty-five would just use the opportunity to hold one of his rallies to a hog-tied nation.

And frankly, the SOTU is no longer useful. We're inundated with so much information that a formal speech is superfluous and simply provides a venue for grand-standing. The standing and clapping are really lame. Now if the public were allowed in to throw rotten fruit at the bastard...