“(The President) shall from time to time give to Congress
information of the State of the Union and recommend to their
Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
-U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 3
Tuesday of this week, the U.S. government celebrated one of its longest
running requirements when President Obama addressed a joint session of
Congress and gave his State of the Union address. With television
cameras and reporters everywhere, this annual event also continued its
circus-like atmosphere complete with dozens of stops for applause and
even the occasional hiss.
But the State of the Union address was not always as it is now.
Washington delivered the first address in person in 1790 - known then
as the “President’s Annual Message to Congress” - and the practice
continued until Thomas Jefferson became president. Jefferson thought
delivering the speech in person was too much like the Speech from the
Throne given by many European monarchies. Since the Constitution did not
require the report be given in person, he sent a report and a clerk
read it to Congress.
The practice of sending a written report
continued until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson appeared in person before
Congress with much fanfare and controversy. Since that time, every
president has given at least one address in person during their time in
office. Calvin Coolidge brought the speech to the masses by delivering
the first radio broadcast of the address in 1923.
But it was with
Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the most. He used the term “State of the
Union” in one of his speeches and the term stuck, replacing the Annual
Message name. He also prepared an oral message for every year he was in
office. Although technically his final address in 1945 was delivered by
written report to Congress, he summarized it on the radio to the
Since Roosevelt, most presidents have delivered
the State of the Union address in person with only a few exceptions. The
last two times only a written report was submitted was by President
Nixon in 1973 during the investigation into the Watergate scandal and in
1981 by President Carter with the hostages in Iran and the economy in a
But is tradition enough reason to continue this practice as it is now?
the viewer was an Obama administration supporter, then they most likely
loved his speech on Tuesday, reveling in his descriptions of the
economy and the country. If they do not support his policies, then the
viewers most likely turned off their televisions in disgust, abhorred by
promises of billions of more dollars spent in government programs with
no way to pay for them.
And therein lies our problem. If the State
of the Union address has been reduced to a laundry list of wish items,
interrupted time and time again by supporters’ applause, only to be
rebutted by the opposing party in a following television program
(beginning in 1966), then has the substance of a requirement of the U.S.
Constitution become nothing more than another campaign stop, another
chance for political one-up-man-ship?
Perhaps it is time to revert to an even older tradition and let the ideas speak for themselves without the television cameras.