America needs more than a self-congratulatory campaign-style State of the Union

America needs more than a self-congratulatory campaign-style State of the Union
© Getty Images

In 1801, Thomas Jefferson shattered a tradition established by the esteemed precedent-setter George Washington. Jefferson stood-up Congress and declined to deliver his State of the Union message in person. He didn’t want to highlight his less than stellar public speaking skills and thought his appearance before Congress would carry too many monarchial overtones.

For the next 112 years, presidents followed Jefferson’s lead in fulfilling the Constitutional mandate that the president report to Congress “from time to time” on the state of the union. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson turned precedent on its head when he boldly marched to the Capitol to deliver his comments in person — a tradition that has largely held now for more than a century. 

Over time, the speech has evolved from a dry recitation of facts and budget numbers to the articulation of the president’s policy agenda. The audience for the speech has also expanded from just Congress to the public and the president’s political supporters as well — all aimed at whipping up support for the president’s objectives.

Presidents have often used the State of the Union address to lay out significant and lofty policies. The Monroe Doctrine was outlined in James Monroe’s 1823 message. Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 address became known as the Four Freedoms speech. Lyndon Johnson unveiled legislation in 1964 for his “War on Poverty.” George W. Bush launched the War on Terror in his 2002 “axis of evil” speech.


When President TrumpDonald John TrumpScarborough mocks 'Deflection Don' over transgender troop ban Pelosi condemns Trump's 'cowardly, disgusting' ban on transgender troops Trump moves to ban most transgender people from serving in military MORE delivers his first State of the Union address to Congress on Jan. 30, 2018, will he break any precedents? Will he outline any major policy initiatives? Will his speech display a restrained and scripted teleprompter president or reveal the raw side of the president’s opinions and demeanor?

Given the rich history of State of the Union addresses, Americans can hope the president will follow in the tradition of his predecessors — act presidential, find common ground in our divided republic, and model civil and respectful discourse to solve some of America’s and the world’s most intractable problems. 

What the country longs to hear is a statesmanship message of unity, civility, global stability, and a feasible and well-articulated domestic and economic policy agenda that will benefit the 99 percent instead of the 1 percent. In a nuclear age of rising tensions — many stirred by the president himself — the nation hopes for the articulation of a foreign policy agenda that recognizes the collective interdependence of all nations and the promotion of peace.

Now is the time for you to pinch yourself, sit up straight, and wake up from such a fantasy dream. It is highly unlikely that the president is prepared for or capable of such a dramatic pivot in his struggling presidency.

But even if our fantasy dream of Trump acting presidential comes true, even if the president rises to the occasion and reads a moderate and reasonable speech on the state of the union, why is there such widespread skepticism and diminished hope that such words will be translated into action?

One thing Trump has demonstrated in his one year in office (and his time on the campaign trail) is that he has limited respect for truth. He is willing to say anything at any time, only to contradict it later (even within minutes) or deny that he said it in the first place. He has never been known as a policy wonk or defender of objective truth. Instead, he has been driven only by an intense desire to “win” regardless of what policy may be created or truth trampled upon.




Sadly and alarmingly, the nation has been inoculated against expecting truth, consistency, and inclusive governance from the president with his denial of scientific facts, constant barrage of petty attacks against others, seventh-grade taunts against world leaders, vulgar language, the well-oiled White House revolving door that has created a historically high turnover of staff, and the subtle and disturbing normalization of aberrational behavior entirely inconsistent with the 43 men who preceded him in the nation’s highest office.

Rather than a dream that fantasizes about an appropriately presidential State of the Union address, what Congress and the public are likely to hear is a self-congratulatory campaign-style speech about how the president’s leadership has made America great again — even though the dishonest media has failed to recognize that he has accomplished more in his first year in office than any president.

He will take credit for the historically high stock market, for no commercial airline deaths last year, for how companies are bringing factories back to America at a record pace, for how America is now respected by all nations, that ISIS is finally being defeated because of his tough policies, for rolling back job killing anti-America trade and climate deals, for strengthening the military and taking care of veterans, for protecting religious liberty by appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, for killing ObamaCare through legislation and executive orders, for single-handedly ushering back into the American lexicon the phrase “Merry Christmas,” and for a revision of the tax code that will benefit the forgotten men and women of America. 

It’s important to note that Trump specializes in the art of illusionary possibility thinking. He believes if he says what he wants to be true often enough, regardless of any factual foundation to his statements, he can create his own reality narrative unencumbered by the inconvenience of facts and truth.

For the president’s core political base — the diminishing and roughly third of the population that approves of his performance in office — such words are music to their ears.

But for a large segment of America, the president’s State of the Union address may be just one more precedent-breaking event and one more moment of acute embarrassment.

Former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaYou just can't keep good health policy down Obama Foundation announces new job training program for Chicago students Biden praises Parkland students fighting for gun reform: ‘They’re going to win’ MORE recently zeroed in on the disconnect within the nation of how we understand truth. “We are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than if you listen to NPR.” We must remember that there is such a thing as objective truth.

Trump has spent a lifetime capitalizing on casting aspersions on truth and insinuating his own version of reality. From the Oval Office, he now has a bully pulpit to twist the truth and promote conspiracy theories. But the consequences of acting based on fantasy and conspiracy theories now has significant, dangerous, and far-reaching global impacts.

Which Trump will appear before Congress on Jan. 30? A president who offers a measured and thoughtful agenda with the right words but with no intention to follow-through? Or maybe a president who does intend to follow-through? Or a colorful campaigner eager to convince America of how great he has been as president? Only time will tell.

Mike Purdy is a presidential historian and the founder of He is a frequent and popular speaker and is often quoted by the media about presidential history and politics, including CNN, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Reuters, Bloomberg, The Huffington Post, BBC and others.