As the current partial government shutdown – now the longest in our nation’s history - continues to remain in effect, a feeling of precariousness seemingly shrouds our collective national consciousness.
This past week, the Speaker of the House asked the President of the United States to refrain from giving a State of the Union address this year.
“...I suggest we work together to determine another suitable date after government has re-opened for this address…” she wrote. She went on to suggest that perhaps the President could simply submit his “address in writing.” A practice espoused by Presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson was the first in the modern era to deliver the State of the Union address to Congress in person, establishing a norm that would hold true to our present time. Perhaps until now.
Some welcomed her words, arguing in favor of abolishing this yearly tradition altogether. “…The event has long since curdled into the exact kind of partisanship it is supposed to transcend,” wrote Jeff Greenfield in Politico.“It’s rituals more of a papering-over of our political rancor than a moment that genuinely brings us together.”
While questions remain regarding the efficacy of such speeches, the necessity of the address originates in the Constitution. As outlined in Article II, Section 3, 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.” The State of the Union offers a chance for the President to cast his or her vision for America, calling upon Congress to adopt certain legislative priorities and initiatives, all while appealing to the American public.
It is inevitable that such an event would offer the President a chance to practice the art of political spin. Or to indulge in subtle (or not so subtle) rhetorical flourishes filled with self-aggrandizing words. Inevitably, partisanship emerges, visually tracked by which side of the chamber rises in ovation, and which side remains seated. Admittedly, this ritual is filled with a bit of inanity, both sides eager to use the forum to advance their own agenda.
Yet the importance of symbolism inherent in this event should not be ignored. Such addresses are watched by countries around the world. A well-crafted speech can be used to send a message, to project an image of strength or unity. Such a display is still useful on the world stage, another tool in the toolbox of American diplomacy that can set the tone for future interactions with nations abroad.
Additionally, a President can use this forum to appeal to all Americans, as an opportunity to promote a sense of unity. This speech can be a salve to a weary nation, especially in times of political strife. The act of having members of Congress sitting in the same chamber, united as one body as they watch their President deliver an address. When else do we see all three branches of government gathered together in an official capacity?
I remember the first time I watched a State of the Union address. I came of age during the Bush years, watching as America fought two wars abroad and grappled with large domestic problems here at home. Despite the uncertainty felt during the early 2000’s, there was something about watching this address each January that provided a bit of stability. After all, some semblance of solace can be derived from long-standing traditions. Each year, one watches as the members file into the chamber. You wonder why you have tuned in, what the excitement is all about. Until you hear the Sergeant at Arms announce, “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States.” In that moment, regardless of personal feelings regarding the current occupant of the Oval Office, you freeze. Here walks the President of the United States.
The magic of the moment is not dependent upon the person walking down the aisle. The majesty of the office transcends any individual. It speaks to the longevity of the United States of America, reassures us all that despite the trouble facing our nation, the “state of our Union is strong.” A statement not based upon circumstances or policies, personalities or parties; but, based upon the power of the American spirit, and the sense that the American people will work tirelessly towards collectively building a stronger union.
Regardless of how the story unfolds this January, any attempts to permanently abolish the State of the Union address would harm our democracy. The Presidency is unlike any elected office in our democratic system; and, as such, should automatically garner respect. Any President elected by the people, regardless of whether he or she received our individual vote, deserves the honor of addressing us in a formal manner. While change is necessary, some conventions should remain. As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “Without our traditions, our life would be as shaky as a Fiddler on the Roof!”
And isn’t life shaky enough already?
Samuel Moore-Sobel is a freelance writer. To read more of his work, visit www.holdingontohopetoday.com