Opinion | The State of the Union Could Be an Email
Biden should cancel the interminable public spectacle — it worked for Jefferson.
President Joe Biden arrives to deliver the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the U.S. Capitol on March 1, 2022. | Saul Loeb/Getty Images
Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.
How did the State of the Union — which owes its origin to a one-liner in the Constitution instructing the president to “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the state of the Union,” become an annual political carnival that requires an UltraMax security cordon to be cast over the Capitol Building, swallows hours of live TV coverage on a half dozen networks, and goads reams of pre- and post-analysis out of the typing press — become such an all-consuming gala?
The Constitution’s authors didn’t think the SOTU was essential, giving presidents the wide instruction that they must only address remarks to Congress “from time to time.” If the president stiffed Congress on the SOTU, no constitutional crisis would ensue. Nor must the president present his remarks in person. Every president from Thomas Jefferson to William Howard Taft produced remarks for Congress and then mailed them in. And the State of the Union wasn’t even called the State of the Union until the 1940s during Franklin Roosevelt’s reign. Previously it went by the more humble name of the “Annual Message.” Nor must the SOTU be an act of gasbaggery. President George Washington gave one in 1790 that clocked in at 1,089 words, about twice as long as the piece you’re now reading.
For all the pomp and pageantry, all the perfunctory standing ovations, and since President Ronald Reagan, the never-ending cast of “guests” in the bleacher seats who receive salutes from the president, the whole ceremony could be replaced by a simple email from the prez to members of Congress. No need to preempt regular broadcasts. No need to keep newscasters like Jake Tapper and Lester Holt and Norah O’Donnell up past their bedtimes. No need for griping columns like this one.
The State of the Union isn’t completely useless, as I argued here eight years ago. It can help a president shape and present his agenda to Congress and the public. But a well-written email or PowerPoint demonstration could probably do an equal job of organizing and explaining an administration’s ambitions for the coming year.
When assigning blame for the contemporary indulgence of the SOTU, the obvious villain is television. The event was once a daytime bit of programming. It didn’t become a prime-time show until President Lyndon Johnson gave his 1965 performance. Johnson delighted at having a forum that allowed him to speak directly to the public, unlike press conferences, which are frequently interrupted by pesky questions from reporters. Reagan supplemented his SOTU speeches with Hollywood stagecraft. Previously, the SOTU was a simple speech. But Reagan turned it into a show by casting everyday heroes, veterans, activists and others into his productions, prompting whistles and applause by calling out their names and goading them to stand up and receive congressional adulation. Subsequent presidents, especially Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, expanded the “folks in the crowd” gimmick so far that some years the “guests” became more notable than the speech itself. (I’ll bet President Bill Clinton wishes he could row back the honors he gave Sammy Sosa.) Today, the SOTU resembles an old-fashioned variety show, only with the president filling in for Ed Sullivan.
The SOTU has thrived as a public spectacle for the past 80 years because it taps into a human psyche that seems to demand annual festivals and celebrations that renew the human spirit. Most cultures, ancient and modern, have marked the new year with rituals that plot a new beginning for all concerned. For Christians, this time of renewal can by marked by Easter or Christmas. For agrarian societies, it came at harvest time. For drinkers, it’s New Year’s Eve. For politicians, the State of the Union has become the starting place for political renewal, a time when all the powers — Congress, the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff — await (or prepare to ignore) instructions from their maximum leader.
Like a religious observance, the SOTU is chockablock with ritual observances. It’s usually given on a Tuesday. The members of the Supreme Court must sit motionless, like sphinxes, and not applaud. The sergeant-at-arms of the U.S. House of Representatives welcomes the maximum lead with an introduction that never varies. “Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States!” The ritual sequesters a single cabinet official off-site (the “designated survivor”) to ascend to the presidency in case a bomb strikes the building and vaporizes all. And the speech always elicits as many standing ovations from members of the president’s party as you might witness at a Bruce Springsteen concert. The SOTU festival expanded its footprint in 1966, when the opposition party started giving its response to the president’s comments the same night.
None of this is necessary, of course. A simpler ritual observance marking the political new year could be instituted, maybe organized around the Super Bowl and income-tax season, or maybe just a countdown ball like the one used in Times Square. By reducing the SOTU to an email, we would save a lot of time and bother. It would discourage presidents from engaging in demagoguery. Presidential speechwriters would also be encouraged to make the message weightier. As the Guardian reported in 2013, SOTU addresses have grown linguistically dumber and dumber since Washington’s time.
And it might lower political temperatures. When to Congress instead of delivering them publicly like his predecessors, he said his intention was to preserve “harmony” in government. “By sending a message, instead of making a speech at the opening of the session,” he wrote, “I have prevented the bloody conflicts to which the making an answer would have commited [sic] them.”
It’s not too late, President Joe Biden. You can still cancel the public SOTU and send an email instead. Just let me know your email address ahead of time so I can set up an Outlook rule to send the message directly to the trash.
Jake Tapper goes to bed at 7:30 p.m. every night except New Year’s Eve when he stays up until 10 p.m. Send SOTU trivia to [email protected]. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed watches the SOTU on YouTube. My Mastodon and my Post accounts want to sit in the gallery and be called on by the president. My RSS feed has never given a standing ovation to anybody.