Much like Skin So Soft, WD-40 and Viagara, we have come to know the president’s State of the Union address not for its original purpose but for its current incarnation — one part red-carpet pageantry and one part political stumping, with a heaping helping of the punditry this combination so often yields.
This post will be less concerned about whether this change is for the better or for the worse. It will be more about how the media has both reflected and fueled this change. At the risk of giving away the ending, I would argue the State of the Union makes for a fine study in the observer effect — microphones, television cameras and reporters’ poised pens being instruments that both record and alter.
Most recently, about 26 million Americans watched President Barack Obama’s speech on live television Jan. 18. Cable news channels devoted many hours before and after debating its portend and merit. Online outlets provided a deluge of news and commentary. Newspapers followed suit the next morning. On the local front, The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet led their front pages with the speech. I didn’t think to count, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were two dozen State of the Union story options — examining both the important and the arcane — between the two wire services we use regularly; McClatchy’s Washington, D.C., bureau; and stories available to us from our McClatchy sister newspapers. I do know six of those stories made our budget (to the uninitiated, that’s the list of stories we’re considering for the next day), and that number doesn’t include the story about the Republican response to the address that ultimately ran in print.
And not only was Obama’s address televised ...
... so was U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s response on behalf of the Republican Party (a practice that began in 1966) ...
... and, for the first time, an interest group response from U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who spoke on behalf of tea parties.
There’s no LexisNexis search to tell us how early American newspapers handled George Washington’s first address, but it’s a safe bet news coverage wasn’t so saturating or commentary so ubiquitous.
So why all the fuss these days?
Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution says the president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The only stipulation here is that the president provide this information “from time to time.” Since 1790 State of the Union messages have been delivered regularly in approximate one-year intervals, for a while in December, later in January.
The Constitution doesn’t say in what form the State of the Union must be provided. Indeed, most presidents over the nation’s first century delivered their reports in writing, not as oratory. Federalists Washington and John Adams delivered their addresses to joint sessions of Congress, according to the website The American Presidency Project, but Thomas Jefferson thought that practice too monarchical and delivered his addresses only in writing.
It’s politically instructive that Jefferson’s first State of the Union dealt mostly with matters of national defense and only tangentially with domestic issues. For example, he warned against undue spending on a few port fortifications and recommended the young country “dispense with all the internal taxes, comprehending excise, stamps, auctions, licenses, carriages, and refined sugars, to which the postage on news papers may be added to facilitate the progress of information and that the remaining sources of revenue will be sufficient to provide for the support of Government, to pay the interest of the public debts, and to discharge the principals within shorter periods than the laws or the general expectation had contemplated.”
Every president through Taft followed Jefferson’s lead and submitted a written report. But Woodrow Wilson — inarguably progressive and arguably the most progressive president ever — renewed the practice of delivering the speech to a joint session of Congress. That has continued since, with a few exceptions, regardless of the president's political stripe. It seems likely that the departure from Jeffersonian practice had something to do not only with Wilson's politics, which did not particularly honor tradition, but also with the concurrent rise of modern mass media. Radio, then television, then the Internet brought the addresses — and no small amount of commentary about them — into the home in real time. That perhaps explains why modern State of the Union addresses have been broad in their sweep and aimed more a the presidents' constituencies than Congress.
After all, what politician could turn down such face time with the American people or risk ruining such theater with a pedestrian report once accepting it?
Given my profession, it hardly will be surprising that I think coverage of the State of the Union — and particularly the array of media over which that coverage can be delivered — is mostly to the public benefit. At least when the option is between minimal coverage or maximum coverage. Whether the side effects also are to be regarded as largely beneficial likely depends on the political viewpoint of the individual — Jeffersonians averse to the deification of the chief executive will wince; Wilsonians will relish the opportunity for the president to speak directly to the people and perhaps rally them to a common cause.
Given that media is becoming more omnipresent, not less so, the Jeffersonian approach would seem to mark a bygone era.