Talking Points

COVID is the perfect excuse to finally axe the State of the Union

They're doing it again. According to news reports, the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives plans to sharply cap attendance at the State of Union address. The speech has already been postponed to March 1, its latest date in history. Now President Biden will appear before an underpopulated, socially distanced chamber for the second year in a row.

Continuing health restrictions and delays raise the question of whether the ritual should continue at all. Although it's become a fixture of the political calendar, giving a major public address is not among the president's formal responsibilities. Instead, the Constitution requires only 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." From Thomas Jefferson's administration until 1913, presidents discharged this duty in the form of a written annual message.

The author of the change, as with many degradations of American politics, was Woodrow Wilson. Convinced that the presidency was the only truly national office, Wilson decided to revive the pre-Jeffersonian practice of presidents appearing in person before Congress. 

Initially an attempt to rally the legislature around a coherent agenda, in the manner of British prime ministers, the speech soon became an opportunity for presidents to reach the general public using broadcast media. In 1923, Calvin Coolidge delivered the first State of the Union address to be carried on radio. In 1947, Harry Truman's speech appeared on television. 

Presidents' increasing access to the airwaves made the ritual less necessary, though. Presidents have ample chances to announce and defend their policies through live press conferences, staged speeches, and now, social media. Stripped of the distinctive function Wilson imagined, the State of the Union has degenerated into a spectacle of almost monarchical deference. It doesn't help that few modern presidents have any talent for oratory. Trained to deliver soundbites, they tend to stumble blandly through rhetorical set-pieces that are forgotten as soon as they are uttered.

We don't have to do it this way. Pandemic conditions provide a perfect opportunity to cancel the ceremony and revive its less pompous predecessor. Presidents are not monarchs addressing subjects. They are elected officers of the Constitution, charged to give an account of national conditions and offer suggestions for improving them. 

A written message was good enough for Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. It's good enough for Joe Biden, too.