The State of the Union is obsolete

By the umpteenth standing ovation for President Obama, the state of my knees was painful. It was the 2016 State of the Union. At that point, I had attended 14 of these rituals, not including the speeches to joint sessions of Congress. Seven were given by President Bush, seven by President Obama. Each one involved obligatory partisan cheering or glowering, sitting still or repeatedly rising as if doing multiple leg squats in the gym.

This year, President Trump caved to the postponement by Nancy Pelosi of the television spectacle until the federal government shutdown ended. But why stop there? Why not cancel the entire series? The Constitution only requires 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.”

{mosads}With that mandate, both George Washington and John Adams chose to present their reports orally to Congress. But Thomas Jefferson, clearly wary of the similarities to a monarchical allocution from the throne, simply put the address in writing. Every president continued that tradition of putting the State of the Union on paper, until Woodrow Wilson decided to schlep up to Capitol Hill to deliver it in person.

Now the address has become an annual “made for television” moment, scripted and robotically choreographed, with all the spontaneity of a network show laugh track. It is entertaining fiction, as the content may sound compelling, but in a polarized climate, no one believes it is going to happen in real life. In the days leading up to the speech, fragments are leaked to the press in slow and steady drips. Then, moments before the president utters his first word, members of Congress receive written copies. Some skim it and race ahead as the president speaks in order to exit the asphyxiating House chamber to praise it or pan it for reporters.

To be fair, there have been some truly inspirational moments during the address. In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt used his State of the Union to highlight the “four freedoms.” In 1964, Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. More recently, there have been only flashes of authenticity. In 1993, the teleprompter for President Clinton was loaded with the wrong speech for his address to a joint session of Congress, forcing him to ad lib for almost 10 minutes. The words came from his heart instead a script.

Then there was Representative Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican who despicably shouted “you lie” at President Obama during a joint session of Congress in 2009. The outburst triggered a collective dropping of jaws across both sides of the aisle and, later, an apology from Wilson himself. Perhaps the most notable moment of truth was delivered by President Ford in 1975 when he said, “The State of the Union is not good.”

Many other speeches have been like “Home Alone 3” filled with lots of hype, decent production value, but unmemorable. The ceremony does have social value. You get to shake hands with that senator you barely recognize, chum it up with a star studded member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or talk international affairs with an obscure foreign ambassador.

But other than that, the State of the Union no longer serves a meaningful purpose today and should be discontinued. I am not alone in my opinion. Ratings have declined from nearly 67 million viewers in 1993 to less than 46 million for in 2018. For perspective, nearly 54 million people watched the New England Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs earlier this month.

There are better alternatives. We can return to the tradition of a written address submitted “from time to time” to Congress. It can sit on a shelf in some obscure government warehouse, next to other must reads like the “2017 Review of the System of Quality Control for the Audit Organization of the Government Publishing Office” put out by the Export Import Bank.

Even better, if you want spectacle, go big. Do an American version of Prime Ministers Questions, which occurs weekly in the British House of Commons, and was supported by John McCain in 2008. The president should come to Congress annually and answer questions from Democrats and Republicans. No teleprompter. No pomp. No pageantry. Then, the State of the Union would be not only be stronger, but worth watching.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is a novelist whose latest book is “Big Guns.” You can follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael and Facebook @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags Americans Congress Constitution Democrats Donald Trump Government Joe Wilson John McCain Nancy Pelosi President Republicans Steve Israel White House

More White House News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video