A week ago today, Barack Obama signed the largest spending bill in U.S. history. Yesterday he hosted a “fiscal responsibility” summit at the White House (a guilty conscience, perhaps?). Tonight, President Obama will deliver his first State of the Union address and issue a new round of lavish demands on the public purse.
In recent weeks, the president has been anywhere and everywhere, with a campaign-style blitz of media appearances and town hall meetings. But, hard as it is to imagine in this era of the omnipresent president, there was a time when presidents weren’t seen much and were heard even less. There might be a lesson there for Obama.
Our founding fathers didn’t want a president who’d perpetually pound the bully pulpit.
Our founding fathers didn’t want a president who’d perpetually pound the bully pulpit. They viewed presidential speechifying as a sign of demagoguery, and thought Congress should take the lead on most matters of national policy. They expected the nation’s chief executive to pipe down, mind his constitutional business, and keep his hands to himself.
The “permanent campaign” that dominates modern presidential politics would have appalled our forefathers. Accepting the 1844 Democratic nomination, James K. Polk described the custom of the time: “the office of president of the United States should neither be sought nor declined.”
When 19th-century candidates spoke publicly, they sometimes felt compelled to apologize, as 1872 Democratic contender Horace Greeley did, for breaking “the unwritten law of our country that a candidate for President may not make speeches.”
From Washington to Jackson, presidents gave about three speeches a year on average. In his first year in office, President Clinton gave over 600. Things have changed, but it’s not clear they’ve changed for the better.
Obama’s address tonight isn’t technically a State of the Union (SOTU) address, purists insist, since he’s only been in office a month. But with members of both Houses and the Supreme Court in attendance - standing to clap for every outsized promise - it will look and quack like one.
In early SOTUs, presidents rarely went on at Castro-like length. George Washington’s first SOTU was a humble affair, just over 1000 words, devoid of imperious demands for congressional action.
That wasn’t humble enough for President Thomas Jefferson, however, who disapproved of his two predecessors giving the SOTU in person before Congress assembled. Jefferson saw that practice as “an English habit, tending to familiarize the public with monarchical ideas,” much like the British king’s “speech from the throne.”
So our third president wrote out his SOTU speeches and had them hand-delivered to Congress. The Jeffersonian custom held for over 100 years, until the power-hungry Woodrow Wilson overthrew it. Of 219 SOTUs, only 71 have been delivered in person.
It’s hard to imagine the camera-and-mike-hungry Barack Obama simply “mailing it in.” But maybe he ought to think about making himself a little scarcer and pounding the pulpit less. If the president became less frantically visible, that might benefit the country and the president himself.
Today’s president is a constitutional monstrosity: a national talk-show host with nuclear weapons. When the president dominates the airwaves, promising to cure all manner of economic and social ills, that leads the public to expect a presidential rescue plan for anything that ails the body politic.
The predictable result is an executive branch that rides roughshod over congressional prerogatives. The mortgage bailout Obama announced last week is a case in point, since the bulk of the plan, which has enormous repercussions for the U.S. economy, is being enacted without any action by Congress. A less vocal, less omnipresent president might help us right the constitutional balance of powers.
Moreover, it’s not clear that all this speechifying is doing the president himself much good. After Obama announced his housing plan, one headline writer put it this way: “Obama Speaks, Market Listens, Sells Off.”
When there’s no escape from our national talk-show host-when he appears constantly above every gym treadmill-is it any wonder that we typically want his show cancelled just a few seasons in? Is it any wonder we get sick of him?
There was wisdom in the old ways. A president who talks less might be able to make his words matter more. And a president who promises less might be able to deliver more of what he promises.