In the annals of American political showboating, it’s tough to top the annual circus called the State of the Union message. Mandated by the Constitution—and at first delivered to Congress in written form—it has metastasized since the Wilson Administration into a full-blown political rally, celebrating not the party in power, but the president of the United States personally. Once a year, at the invitation of the Speaker of the House, he commands the attention not only of the Congress, but also members of the Supreme Court. It’s the nearest thing we have to a monarchical moment: all pomp and damn little circumstance, offering a president the chance to reel off, at stupefying length, a laundry list of policy prescriptions that have almost no chance ever of being realized. In short, the hot air that keeps the Capitol dome inflated doesn’t get much hotter than this.
This year, however, may be different. In their ongoing tug-of-war over the partial government shutdown, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has decided to stick her thumb in the eye of President Donald Trump and, citing security concerns, has asked him to delay his scheduled January 29 State of the Union address until the government re-opens or, alternatively, send it up the Hill in writing, as every president from George Washington to William Howard Taft did.
What a good idea.
The key to understanding what the SOTU was meant to address in the first place can be found in its Article II constitutional wording, which states 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.” Accordingly, early presidents concentrated on the nuts-and-bolts of government, including budget requests, the general economy, and other mundane matters.
It wasn’t until Wilson, who prior to the election of Barack Obama was the most “progressively” radical president we’d ever had, that the annual message started morphing into the thing we know today—a full-throated advertisement for the president’s foreign and domestic policies, symbolizing the shift of power from the legislative branch to the executive.
Now, thanks to Pelosi, Trump has an opportunity to turn it into something else altogether: an actual report on the “State of the Union.” As Pelosi’s sidekick, U.S. Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), cracked: “the state of the union is off.” Boy, is it ever.