The sorry state of the State of the Union address

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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Article II, Section 3 of the United States Constitution mandates that the president “shall 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.” President Obama performed this constitutional responsibility for the fourth time this week before a joint session of Congress, assorted invited guests and a national television audience.

While Obama’s speech received generally positive reviews for style and delivery from commentators on the left and right, it is difficult to see how the speech, or any State of the Union speech delivered in the last several decades, satisfies the purpose intended by the framers of the Constitution. The president really said very little about the state of the union. There was no mention that the national debt exceeds $16 trillion, or that this year’s deficit is projected to exceed $900 billion — only broad and unsupported claims that, whatever the nation’s fiscal problems, those problems will soon be remedied if Congress follows the president’s lead.

In that regard, Obama did make some recommendations consistent with the constitutional prescription, but beyond claiming that everything he proposed would cost “not a dime,” his proposals were so devoid of specifics as to give Congress and the people no basis, beyond partisan politics, for action or judgment.

Speaking of partisan politics, what better evidence that the State of the Union has become a hopelessly partisan political event than the dreadful practice of placing a member of the opposition party before a stationary camera to deliver a response to a speech he has not heard? And how many more times must we watch grown men and women leap to their feet (over once per minute on average) in partisan unity to applaud like kids at a junior high pep rally? And how many more human props must we view on orchestrated display in the House galleries? Try to imagine unemployed factory workers seated next to Eleanor Roosevelt while FDR laid out his New Deal plans, or emancipated slaves next to Mary Todd Lincoln as Honest Abe made the case for abolition and the preservation of the union.

Speaking of Lincoln, his second State of the Union address (delivered in writing, as was the custom for most of our history until Woodrow Wilson) provided a detailed, department-by-department accounting of the government’s finances, reported on achievements and challenges in the implementation of various laws and offered a frank assessment of the progress of the war with the rebellious Southern states. Like most other 19th-century presidents, Lincoln actually reported on the state of the union.

Perhaps it was inevitable that political theater would overtake constitutional purpose once it became the norm to deliver a public address before Congress — particularly after the advent of television. In fact, the most substantive State of the Union address of the last century is probably Jimmy Carter’s last in 1981, and it was the only one in recent decades to be delivered in writing.

There is probably no turning back. The State of the Union address will never again serve its constitutional purpose of providing Congress with an honest assessment of the state of the union along with concrete recommendations for addressing the nation’s problems and challenges. But maybe Congress could bring a little decorum to the proceedings. Members of Congress could take their lead from the Joint Chiefs and the Supreme Court justices who listen in respectful silence. That way, the president would have the opportunity to deliver a coherent and thoughtful speech, and members of Congress would not feel obliged to demonstrate their partisanship through applause. After all, at this point, bipartisanship is the only path forward.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.