In 1913, Woodrow Wilson reignited the tradition of personally delivering the State of the Union address to Congress, a practice that had been in abeyance for more than a century. Ever since, these inter-branch gatherings have constituted one of the most anticipated rituals of our national politics. And nearly always, they disappoint.
Steeped in vague policy proposals, saccharine patriotism, platitudes and manipulative personal tributes with all the nuance and subtlety of a Steven Spielberg blockbuster, the speeches are long, discursive, formulaic and boring. Alliteration stands in for eloquence, talking points for narrative arc. Conventional and staid, these performances discover levity and amusement through happenstance and interruption — as, on Tuesday, when the newly-elected women on the Democratic side of the aisle spontaneously broke out in chants of “USA! USA! USA!”
But the State of the Union is part of a long tradition that the Washington establishment celebrates. Shaking hands with forced grace, the president moves down the aisle lined with members of Congress and members of his cabinet to lay out an agenda for the coming year that likely will never see the light of day. It is manufactured and predictable — and entirely at odds with the character and core of the Trump presidency.
President TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE came into office as the outsider candidate, as the antithesis of the career politician, one who caters to the concerns of Americans who felt abandoned and betrayed by their government. His approach was not new — see the leadership style of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez or Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi — but it was well-tested and effective. By upending all sorts of political conventions, Trump galvanized a populist fury that looked contemptuously upon business-as-usual in the nation’s capital.
So it was peculiar that Donald Trump felt it necessary to uphold this convention, and to spend 90 minutes in front of the same body he routinely mocks and loathes, delivering a speech that featured all the tropes and trappings of everyday politics. He didn’t have to do this. He could have taken his message directly to his base in a manner more befitting his public reputation, somewhere far from Washington on a stage with banners, cheering and flags. By delaying his speech last month, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats step up pressure on Biden on student loan forgiveness Climate activists target Manchin Democrats face growing storm over IRS reporting provision MORE (D-Calif.) all but dared him to do so. The television audience for such a speech surely would have exceeded the number of viewers who tuned into Tuesday’s address. And the impression it would have left surely would have been more enduring.
Though he came to office on a pledge to “drain the swamp,” Trump clearly sees gains to be had from appearing presidential. That requires convention and choreography, which the State of the Union has in spades. From the formal introduction of the president by the sergeant-at-arms to the gesturing and applauding of the invited guests, the visual constructs allow the president to convince at least some segments of the public that he embodies the distinct leadership traits of the office. Though at core a populist, President Trump clearly thought it was important to spend an evening wrapped in the shroud of convention and tradition.
Truer to his type, though, Trump could have written a new chapter of the plebiscitary presidency by redefining, once again, how the State of the Union would be delivered — just as Wilson did a century ago. For a man who betrayed something approximating glee when shutting down the government two months ago, it would have been more in step with his character to abandon tradition and re-engage the people anew.
Falling back on convention, as Trump opted to do, is not obviously safe. For this president, in fact, it presents genuine risks. By embracing the symbolism and ritual of this highly conventional occasion, Trump runs afoul of the very assets that got him to office — disdain for career politicians and so-called experts, contempt for Congress, and an abiding distrust of Washington politics. It’s not clear that he can continue to assume both personas: Trump the champion of the people and Trump the occasional statesman. At some point, he may have to choose. Politically, from what I can tell, he would have done well to accept Pelosi’s initial hesitancy and taken this show on the road.
William Howell is a professor of American politics at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. He is the author of “Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government — and Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency.” Follow him on Twitter @ProfWillHowell.