The State of the Union (SOTU) speech has become a carnival of politics, theatrics and rudeness, much like cable television. The United States Constitution requires the president to “give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union” (Article II, Section 3). You don’t have to be a constitutional scholar to recognize that the requirement is to simply give Congress a report on the state of the union.
Nothing more, nothing less.
Presidents George Washington and John Adams delivered their messages in person. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson chose to send his in writing. That precedent held until Woodrow Wilson decided to deliver his message in person in 1913, a tradition that continues today. Franklin Roosevelt referred to it as the “State of the Union Address,” a title that became official during the Harry Truman administration. The first radio broadcast of the message occurred in 1923, and the first television broadcast of it occurred in 1947.
It’s been downhill ever since.
Today the SOTU is a modern media spectacle. It provides no substantive information on the condition of the United States, but instead is a campaign event. When a president personally addresses a joint session of Congress, it should be on matters of import — national security, war, or some event that has gripped the attention of the nation or the world and cries out for a president to publicly address it.
Now we see Congress leaping to its feet to support a president’s agenda, a congressman shouting “you lie” in opposition to a president’s statement, American citizens paraded before the cameras as props to engender empathy with a president. The SOTU has become a well-choreographed sideshow of politics, grandstanding, manipulation and, frankly, incredible boredom.
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito has had enough of it.
Asked if he would attend the State of the Union address next year, after the TV cameras this year caught him objecting to President Obama’s denigration of the country’s highest court, Justice Alito said, “I doubt that I will be there in January.”
Alito complained of it being “very awkward” for the justices who attend the annual speech in the presence of the assembled members of both houses of Congress.
In case you don’t recall why Justice Alito feels this way, on January 27, 2010, President Barack Obama, instead of fulfilling his constitutional duty to “give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union,” berated the Supreme Court in a manner better suited for a campaign stump speech than a SOTU speech:
During the SOTU, an entire apparatus of security forces goes into action. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Department of Defense (DoD) all implement continuity of government and continuity of operations plans, including the absence of a presidential successor, because of the security risks created by the entire government of the United States being in one location. Millions of dollars are spent so the president can rally his followers, attack his opponents, and stump for his agenda — all in the name of giving Congress “information” on the state of the union.