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Sound of Silence

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Sound of Silence

The government shutdown could end the State of the Union address as we know it—and that would be a good thing. January 17, 2019
Politics and law

Four weeks into the longest federal-government shutdown in history, no one is winning. President Trump still doesn’t have his border wall. Democrats in Congress show no signs of bringing the White House to heel. And hundreds of thousands of federal workers are either furloughed or working without pay. There may, however, be at least one silver lining: the end of the State of the Union address as we know it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has sent a letter to President Trump suggesting that, because of the shutdown, he should either postpone the address (scheduled for January 29) or submit it in writing. The latter idea may sound novel to Americans conditioned to the speech as an annual tradition, but it would mark a return to the historical norm.

It’s not widely known, but the Constitution requires that the president deliver some version of a State of the Union message. Article II, Section III states 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.” President George Washington read “from time to time” as “annually,” and a tradition was born. Both Washington and his successor, John Adams, chose to meet this obligation with speeches, but the Constitution doesn’t stipulate how the information must be conveyed. Beginning with Thomas Jefferson in 1801, the “annual message,” as it was then called, was delivered as a written document. That practice continued unbroken until 1913, when Woodrow Wilson (who never passed up a chance to elevate the office to ecclesiastical heights) delivered the message as a speech. Though both Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover tried to revert to the written format, a speech delivered before both houses of Congress has been the default since Franklin Roosevelt’s 1934 address.

Those who pine for a return to the earlier format—a group that includes a disproportionate share of my fellow presidential speechwriters—are sometimes accused of being reactionaries, longing for the days when senators weren’t directly elected or when members of the Electoral College picked the president at their discretion. Yet there are more practical reasons to revive the old standard. The speech is no longer an effective tool of presidential power. It is also subtly corrosive of republican norms.

Start with the utility question. To paraphrase one of the standard cliches of the speech, the state of the State of the Union is weak. In fact, it’s precisely these tropes that are the problem. The event has become so thoroughly predictable that any regular viewer can probably predict its content with 90 percent accuracy (not for nothing do many media outlets publish State of the Union bingo cards). The president will offer vague encomia to the spirit of a great nation. He will implicitly suggest that a dithering Congress is the only thing standing between the people and presidentially administered salvation. He will offer slightly too-pat recognition of some American hero in the gallery (a Ronald Reagan innovation). He will enjoy a surfeit of standing ovations, many on purely partisan lines, which will push the already tedious exercise toward the one-hour mark (only the NFL rivals the State of the Union for worst time-to-content ratio). And he will, of course, recite a deathless litany of policy proposals covering all 15 cabinet departments, each one staffed by officials who believe that a few seconds of national-TV exposure will vault their pet issue to the forefront of American consciousness.

There’s a phrase for this kind of turgid predictability: bad TV. Yet presidents are understandably resistant to giving it up. Even the lowest-rated State of the Union of the last quarter-century—Barack Obama’s 2016 valedictory—drew more than 31 million viewers. What politician worth his salt would leave numbers like that on the table?

The answer: one who realizes that presidential rhetoric has an exceedingly brief half-life, and briefer still with the proliferation of media outlets. Virtually all modern presidents have assumed that their optimal communications strategy is to get on as many screens as often as possible. All have been brought to grief by that calculation. Between his first annual address in 2009 and his last in 2016, for example, Obama—the best presidential orator since Ronald Reagan—saw ratings decline every year, ending up 40 percent lower than where he started. Other variables were at work, of course—broadcast viewership is down across the board, and presidents naturally wear out their welcome over time. But that only reinforces the point: in a country with limited patience for its chief executives, why blow so much rhetorical capital on what is essentially a non-event? A president who husbands his words for meaningful occasions could extend his window of influence deeper into his term. Presidents characterized by their ubiquity—as all recent ones have been—inevitably find their powers of persuasion exhausted prematurely, their words becoming white noise to a fatigued public.

Abolishing the State of the Union would also accomplish something loftier than presidential self-preservation: it would rid us of a spectacle that runs counter to republican values. Jefferson’s rationale for moving to a written document, though sometimes attributed to his weakness as a public speaker, was at least partially motivated by his revulsion at a practice that he thought of as quasi-monarchical, analogizing it to the King of England’s remarks at the opening of Parliament. According to Jefferson’s telling, contained in a letter to future president Martin Van Buren, even his longtime antagonist Alexander Hamilton, no enemy of executive pomp, agreed with him on this point.

If anything, Jefferson’s viewpoint is even more relevant today, when the power of the presidency has dramatically expanded. In a constitutional system that gives the legislative branch the whip hand, there’s no justification for letting the president take an hour of national TV time to attempt to bully members of what is supposedly the superior branch of government—to their faces, in their own chamber. To the extent that the evening is used as an occasion for civic education, it sends Americans precisely the wrong signal about how their government is supposed to work.

For better and for worse, Donald Trump has shown himself more than equal to the task of disrupting presidential traditions. Only he, for instance, would have put an end to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, long a monument to Washington’s self-satisfaction. While Trump is unlikely to be moved by arguments for presidential reticence or legislative supremacy, he should do Speaker Pelosi one better and scrap the State of the Union address entirely. A president who can more artfully wield 140 characters than 140 minutes has better things to do on a Tuesday night—and so do we.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

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