The State of the Union Is…Irrelevant

Kevin Williamson has your red-meat, small-r republican rant on the State of the Union over at NR. He’s right that the once-modest Annual Message has become as bloated and ridiculous as the presidency itself.   

Like Williamson, I used to fume and fume about our latter-day Speech from the Throne, but lately I’m no longer sure it’s worth the bother. For the speech to be worth getting worked up about, somebody would have to be listening. But as I point out in the Washington Examiner today, the polling and poli sci evidence suggest that POTUS is basically howling into the void: 

“There is overwhelming evidence that presidents, even ‘great communicators,’ rarely move the public in their direction,” writes George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. “Going public does not work.” In a 2013 analysis of SOTU polling, Gallup found that “most presidents have shown an average decrease in approval of one or more points between the last poll conducted before the State of the Union and the first one conducted afterward.”

(For more on that point, see Table 2.2 from Edwards’s book On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit or this review of the evidence by Ezra Klein) 

Nor does the president usually fare any better trying to use the SOTU to bend Congress to his will. As this Associated Press analysis puts it, the speech is “high volume, low yield” in terms of generating legislative action.  Contra TR, the bully pulpit isn’t so “bully.” 

None of that is to deny that the modern president has powers vastly greater than he was ever intended to have—or than one man should ever have. The danger isn’t his “power to persuade”: it’s what he can get away with under the “living Constitution” version of Article II: waging war worldwide, reshaping the law through “royal dispensations,”  taking care that his secret laws are faithfully executed. What he does matters; what he says in this stage-managed spectacle is the least of our worries. 

Many of us at Cato will watch and read the speech tonight because it’s sort of our job. If the spirit moves you, follow along on Twitter, hashtag #CatoSOTU. Otherwise, it seems to me that the late Justice Rehnquist had the right attitude

When asked why [he planned to skip the SOTU], he explained that it conflicted with a watercolor class at the YMCA. An incredulous law clerk said, “You can’t miss the State of Union Address for a watercolor class.” Rehnquist responded that he had spent $25 to enroll in the class, and he was going to get every benefit out of it.