One Perspective: The state of the State of the Union

By Tucker Slosburg

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson changed the delivery time of the State of the Union from mid-afternoon to 9 p.m., in order to attract a larger television audience. Of course, between President Jefferson and President Wilson - approximately a hundred years - no president delivered a State of the Union in person, merely a written annual message read by a secretary or clerk. Jefferson thought the procedure reflected the aristocratic tradition of England-too much pomp for necessary circumstance.

Similarly, the notion of a president desiring to “work” with Congress is relatively new. Historically, the president presented an issue, and stated flatly to Congress that “The whole subject now rests with you, and I can not but express a hope that some definite measure will be adopted at the present session.” That was Martin Van Buren discussing a National Bank in his written annual message to Congress in 1838.

If you walk away from the speech every year thinking it’s nebulous and trifling, you should. The speeches today contain more rhetorical flourishes than those of the past, which translates to broad platitudes: of course people want a tax system that works, of course people want a strong education, of course people want a sound immigration policy.

Consider this speech:

“But by closing down obsolete installations, by curtailing less urgent programs, by cutting back where cutting back seems to be wise, by insisting on a dollar’s worth for a dollar spent, I am able to recommend in this reduced budget the most federal support in history for education, for health, for retraining the unemployed, and for helping the economically and the physically handicapped.”

Any president after Truman could have written this, but in this case, it was Johnson in 1964. This is not too far from Obama’s call to freeze Federal pay.

The Annual Message to Congress, as it used to be called, laid out in great detail projects at home and most especially abroad. The actual form of the annual message was a synthesized report from the President’s Secretary, Postmaster General, Navy General, and other Cabinet members. Each agenda item had a philosophical treatise underscoring the urgency of the issue, and there were lots of issues.

If you make a list of each topic discussed in Taft’s 1910 message, it runs two and a half pages-that’s only the list. Here’s are a few topic points: REVENUES, THE PAYNE TARIFF ACT, RIVERS AND HARBORS,PANAMA CANAL, TAX ON PHOSPHOROUS MATCHES, EIGHT-HOUR LAW, NEGRO EXPOSITION, and LIBERIA. President Chester A. Arthur devoted a significant amount of his message on the details for reducing the cost of postage, citing old laws, numerous scenarios, and philosophical arguments.

We don’t see as much details about specific issues in modern speeches, in part because the rise of congressional staffers, who provide ample amounts of information, coupled with more technically advanced and sophisticated media outlets, which means the President doesn’t need to inform Congress on the details of, say, the the WikiLeaks Crisis, versus the Boxer Rebellion.

Still, the old Messages to Congress laid out the actual state of affairs. Compare these to “Win the future.” An inspiring phrase — maybe. But it tells us nothing about the current state of the nation.

Johnson’s strategic move to the prime-time slot crystallizes the transformation from a stately, yet detailed message about the current state of affairs to hyperbolic political rhetoric.

The gradual rise of rhetoric - beginning slowly with Wilson’s return to live speeches — and the decline of a detailed agenda best defines the twentieth century approach to the state of the union

I’m left wondering if the State of the Union serves a purpose aside from inspiration. In part I recognize the need of a leader to offer vision. However, vision without a plan is merely an amorphous idea lacking substance. The specifics of accomplishing the visions of our recent presidents seem significantly understated compared to the 18th and 19th century speeches.

It was never “taxes are too high,” or “we must invest in our future,” it used to be “It has been suggested that the present bonded debt might be refunded at a less rate of interest and the difference between the old and new security paid in cash, thus finding use for the surplus in the Treasury.” Thank you President Garfield for providing a more dry, but less rhetorical description of policy issues.

It’s not Obama, Bush, Clinton or Reagan that’s the issue. A professor with the Miller Center of Public Affairs states clearly, “The key problem with the State of the Union message today is that it serves multiple purposes, and is addressed to indistinct audiences.” By attempting to engage directly with the American people, first through radio, then television, and finally into prime time, the President by necessity had to change the tone from details to rhetoric. While we may feel inspired, we never quite get a clear picture of the President’s agenda or the state of the union. Everyone suffers from that.