The Constitution requires that the president “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.” But it does not mandate the modern ritual of the State of the Union, which consists of a passel of promises and demands on the public fisc, greeted with repeated standing ovations from members of a coordinate branch. That ritual reflects the growing dominance of the presidency in our political system, and our retreat from limited, constitutional government.
In contrast, early presidents often struck a note of modesty and self-restraint: after his third State of the Union, Washington wrote that “motives of delicacy” had deterred him “from introducing any topick which relates to legislative matters, lest it should be suspected that he wished to influence the question before it.”
Our first two presidents delivered their annual messages to Congress in person before both houses. But Jefferson regarded that practice as “an English habit, tending to familiarize the public with monarchical ideas,” and he put a stop to it, choosing instead to send his annual message in writing. For 112 years, presidents conformed to Jefferson’s example, until the power-hungry Woodrow Wilson delivered his first annual message in person to Congress assembled. One senator decried the change in pointed terms: “I am sorry to see revived the old Federalistic custom of speeches from the throne…. I regret this cheap and tawdry imitation of English royalty.” Yet Wilson’s habit caught on. Most presidents in the 20th century delivered the message in person. And in 1966 Lyndon Johnson moved the speech to prime-time viewing hours, the better to reach a national audience.
Thus the State of the Union has settled into its familiar, modern incarnation: a laundry list of policy demands packaged in pomp and circumstance. And the content of the annual message has changed accordingly. In the journal Presidential Studies Quarterly in 2002, political scientist Elvin T. Lim tracked the evolution of presidential rhetoric through two centuries of State of the Union addresses. Lim notes “an increasing lack of humility” on the part of the president, as well as declining references to the Constitution, which were quite prevalent in the 19th century. By the late 20th century, it was “all about the children,” with “Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton [making] 260 of the 508 references to children in the entire speech database, invoking the government’s responsibility to and concern for children in practically every public policy area.” Granted, Washington did mention children in his seventh annual message, protesting “the frequent destruction of innocent women and children” by Indian marauders. But modern references to children have a different tenor, as when President Bush used his 2004 State of the Union to demand “drug testing [in schools] as a tool to save children’s lives…[and] send them this message: We love you and we don’t want to lose you.” In the same speech, departing from the constitutional injunction to address his recommendations to Congress, President Bush called on major league baseball and football to “get tough, and to get rid of steroids now.”
Washington most often referred to the office he held as the mere “chief magistrate”; modern presidents tend to prefer the title “Commander in Chief,” and at times seem to forget that that title merely makes the president commander of the U.S. armed forces, not commander of the nation as a whole. Indeed, President Bush interprets his powers as commander in chief as broad enough to justify locking up American citizens without charges or a trial for as long as the president thinks it’s necessary. More recently the president invoked the CINC clause to rationalize bypassing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and conduct warrantless surveillance of Americans. Tuesday night we’re likely to hear a full-throated defense of that radical view of presidential authority. Friends of constitutional government won’t be applauding.
In this age of television and presidential government, it’s perhaps too much to expect a revival of the humble republican custom initiated by Jefferson. But when Tuesday night’s ritual is done, one hopes that Congress can set about the business of reining in an increasingly imperial presidency.