Tonight, the media and the political world will gather to focus on a political tradition rich in history — and almost utterly devoid of substance. President Barack Obama will bask in the attention of a joint session of Congress and fulfill his constitutional duty to report on the state of the union, mandated in Article II, Section 3, which requires a president to report to Congress "from time to time" on our national status. But today, we're a lot more likely to hear about a president’s political status, and his political grocery list, than we are about our own status as a nation.
The politicization of the State of the Union Address didn't start with President Obama, or George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton. For this particular tradition of the national sales pitch, we can thank Woodrow Wilson. George Washington and John Adams delivered their speeches to Congress in person, but the thoroughly small-R republican Thomas Jefferson thought the spectacle smacked too much of the tradition of a monarch opening a session of parliament, and sent a written report instead. Wilson resurrected the practice of delivering the speech personally to a joint session of Congress, and political sales pitches have never been the same.
By now, we have moved very far away from Jefferson's example. His first such written address reads much like a traditional status report, mainly focusing on the war in Tripoli and the need to allow for free enterprise with as little federal intervention as possible. In fact, here’s a passage you won’t find in many modern State of the Union speeches, if any at all:
"Among those who are dependent on Executive discretion I have begun the reduction of what was deemed unnecessary. The expenses of diplomatic agency have been considerably diminished. The inspectors of internal revenue who were found to obstruct the accountability of the institution have been discontinued. Several agencies created by Executive authorities, on salaries fixed by that also, have been suppressed, and should suggest the expediency of regulating that power by law, so as to subject its exercises to legislative inspection and sanction."
We won't find this kind of governmental modesty in any of Jefferson's recent successors. Let's play a game and see if our readers can determine which party affiliation goes with the following excerpts from presidential addresses:
"Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternative energy sources. And we are on the threshold of incredible advances.
"So tonight I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative -- a 22-percent increase in clean-energy research - at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy."
Figured it out yet? How about this:
"Next, we need to encourage American innovation. Last year, we made the largest investment in basic research funding in history, an investment that could lead to the world's cheapest solar cells or treatment that kills cancer cells but leaves healthy ones untouched. And no area is more ripe for such innovation than energy. You can see the results of last year's investments in clean energy in the North Carolina company that will create 1,200 jobs nationwide helping to make advanced batteries or in the California business that will put a thousand people to work making solar panels.
"But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies. And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America."
"But just as our efforts will bring economic growth now and in the future, they must also be matched by long-term investments for the next American century. That requires a forward-looking plan of action, and that's exactly what we will be sending to the Congress. We've prepared a detailed series of proposals that include: a budget that promotes investment in America's future — in children, education, infrastructure, space, and high technology; legislation to achieve excellence in education, building on the partnership forged with the 50 Governors at the education summit, enabling parents to choose their children's schools and helping to make America number one in math and science; a blueprint for a new national highway system, a critical investment in our transportation infrastructure; a research and development agenda that includes record levels of Federal investment, and a permanent tax credit to strengthen private R&D and to create jobs; a comprehensive national energy strategy that calls for energy conservation and efficiency, increased development, and greater use of alternative fuels; a banking reform plan to bring America's financial system into the 21st century so that our banks remain safe and secure and can continue to make job-creating loans for our factories, our businesses, and home buyers."
The truth is that the only way to know the difference between presidents at State of the Union speeches is to bring a scorecard. Every president talks about "investment in America’s future" just as predictably as they start off the speech declaring, "the state of the union is strong!" They come to Congress pitching expanded spending, and they know their target audience well. Congress not only applauds the speech enthusiastically, they also spend money enthusiastically, and for the same reason presidents like to deliver these speeches in person — because at least until now, spending has been popular with the voters for whom this spectacle is most intended.
In November, voters sent a big message that the sales pitch doesn’t work anymore. Maybe it's time for one of our modern presidents to return to Jefferson's 1801 model of status reports, right down to the quiet insistence on reducing the spectacle and size of our federal government.
Note: In case you didn’t have your scorecard, the excerpts came from George W. Bush (2006), Barack Obama (2010), and George H. W. Bush (1991), respectively.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- 7 tips for keeping your man (from the 1950s)
- 4 simple steaks you can cook in a pan
- Why does Fareed Zakaria still have a job?
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- Does solar energy have a battery problem?
- Save the world... by changing how you pee
Subscribe to the Week