The nation will be atwitter tonight -- and these days, that is to be taken literally -- with President Barack Obama's State of the Union address. I'm sure it will lead our newspaper tomorrow and be the subject of much punditry on newscasts for the next few days.
Strictly speaking, these addresses have always had a political bent to them, but as I pointed out in a blog post following Obama's 2011 address, they have slowly morphed into an extension of the never-ending campaign trail, more about the president's agenda than giving legislators a heads up.
As such, today's addresses are dutifully followed by a response from the major party that doesn't hold the presidency, a practice that begain in 1966. This exercise expanded in 2011 to include a third address from a politician speaking on behalf of the tea party movement.
It's doubhtful this is what the framers had in mind when, in Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, they commanded the president to "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." It was originally construed and conducted more like a coporate annual report than the naked stump speech it has become. 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 American Presidency Project, but Thomas Jefferson thought that practice too monarchical and delivered his addresses only in writing. Successors mostly followed suit.
That could make for less-than-scintillating addresses, of course. Take for example the seventh address by two-term President James Monroe, in 1823. He faithfully reported:
In what is likely the most significant (and among the most fidelious) of state of the union addresses ever was James Monroe's in 1823, hand-written address, the seventh of is presidency. He faithfully reported that:
The actual state of the public accounts furnishes additional evidence of the efficiency of the present system of accountability in relation to the public expenditure. Of the moneys drawn from the Treasury since March 4th, 1817, the sum remaining unaccounted for on the 30th of September last is more than $1.5 millions less than on the 30th of September preceding; and during the same period a reduction of nearly $1 million has been made in the amount of the unsettled accounts for moneys advanced previously to March 4th, 1817. It will be obvious that in proportion as the mass of accounts of the latter description is diminished by settlement the difficulty of settling the residue is increased from the consideration that in many instances it can be obtained only by legal process. For more precise details on this subject I refer to a report from the first Comptroller of the Treasury.
Yet tucked into this mundane accounting as a foreign-policy precept that has endured for nearly 200 years.
It is perhaps better known as the Monroe Doctorine.