The scene is familiar to even casual political observers. With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sitting above her chamber’s rostrum and next to the vice president, the sergeant-at-arms shouts to the packed hall: “Madam Speaker, the president of the United States.” Members of both parties erupt in applause. Some House members even wait hours ahead of time for an aisle seat so they can be photographed getting a presidential handshake or hug.
There’s no constitutional requirement for such a display. Thomas Jefferson delivered his reports to the legislature in writing.
It’s all part of a well-worn ritual for annual addresses to Congress, or State of the Union speeches, as they’re called in the latter three years of a president’s term. But much of the ceremony and fanfare will be missing on Wednesday when President Joe Biden delivers his first joint address to Congress, and indeed there’s no constitutional requirement for such a display. Thomas Jefferson delivered his reports to the legislature in writing.
Like so much else over the past 13 months, Covid-19 restrictions will limit the festivities. Only a couple hundred lawmakers out of a combined 535 members of the House and Senate made the cut. No guests are coming, and the usual lineup of Supreme Court justices and military brass will be limited to Chief Justice John Roberts and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Even longtime congressional “aisle hog” Rep. Eliot Engel won’t be there; the New York Democrat lost his House seat in the primary last year.
To all that pomp and circumstance, I say, good riddance! The degradation in manners and decline of statesmanship in modern presidential addresses to Congress suggest that Jefferson was onto something by keeping his distance from Capitol Hill. Of course, no modern president is going to forgo the trappings and publicity of a prime-time address. But this year’s scaled-back affair offers some hope that a minimalist approach may now take hold.
The State of the Union is intended to be a deliberate occasion, an important opportunity for the nation’s chief executive to report on the nation’s condition, propose a vision for the future and appeal for unity and action. But they long ago grew into media spectacles that are more partisan rallies than efforts to convey substantive information about the workings of government, with Trump delivering the coup de grace as he effectively turned them into reality TV programs. Biden needs to reclaim their seriousness of tone and purpose.
Though the first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, delivered speeches directly to Congress, all of the early Oval Office holders were acutely sensitive about not mixing their grip on power with the duties of their office. Jefferson was so concerned that speaking directly to Congress would make him seem like a king that he delivered his first annual address in written form via a clerk.
Indeed, presidents have wide latitude on how to explain to lawmakers the nation’s accomplishments and offer aspirations for the country. They need only follow the vague constitutional prescription that the commander-in-chief “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.”
As fictional “West Wing” White House communications director Toby Ziegler once quipped, the president is “required to give Congress information on the State of the Union. If he buys Congress a subscription to The Wall Street Journal,” he's fulfilled his constitutional duty.
It was only in 1913 that in-person presidential speeches to Congress were revived, when Woodrow Wilson delivered his first message live from the House chamber. A political scientist by training, Wilson aimed to engage the public with a more visible, personal presidency. The tradition has continued since.
Lyndon B. Johnson then took the first step toward amping up presidential addresses into the spectacles so familiar today. In 1965, LBJ moved the normally dayside speech to night and televised it. Johnson wanted to use mass media to attract the largest audience possible to hear him unveil his administration’s “War on Poverty,” a cornucopia of domestic spending programs.
Ronald Reagan, a former actor, further added a showman’s touch to the often dry ritual. Reagan’s 1982 State of the Union address was the first to acknowledge a special guest in the audience — Lenny Skutnik, who 13 days earlier had saved the life of a woman whose airplane crashed into the frozen Potomac River by diving into the icy waters.
Skutnik was undoubtedly a worthy recipient of the nation’s attention and gratitude. As were the rapidly multiplying number of special guests in presidential addresses that followed, a roster made up of ordinary people who had done extraordinary things. But by 2016, Barack Obama was showcasing a staggering 23 guests.
In his four speeches to Congress during his single term, Donald Trump’s guest lists reached into the low double digits. But it was the way the former “Apprentice” star introduced them that so differed from a proper affair of state. Last year’s included him surprising a soldier’s wife with her husband’s return — a feel-good moment to be sure, but hardly the point of a presidential address.
And in a not-so-feel-good moment for at least half the country, Trump also surprised conservative talk show host and provocateur Rush Limbaugh with a Medal of Freedom, as first lady Melania Trump draped it around his neck. Limbaugh was not only a highly inappropriate recipient of the award, which has gone to nationally unifying figures like astronaut Neil Armstrong and Yankees great Joe DiMaggio, but the State of the Union was not the venue in which to give it.
But those weren’t the only moments heightening the infomercial nature of the proceedings under Trump. As he opened his final State of the Union, Republican members of Congress chanted “four more years,” a shocking breach of decorum that eviscerated the fading line between a sober affair of state and a re-election rally.
The partisan antics only increased when, at the end of Trump’s speech, Pelosi ripped up a printed copy. That was an unthinkable act even in the most partisan relationships between a president and House speaker, like the arch-conservative Reagan and ultra-liberal Tip O’Neill in the early 1980s.
It was only in 1913 that in-person presidential speeches to Congress were revived, when Woodrow Wilson delivered his first message live from the House chamber.
But the overt partisanship didn’t begin under Trump. Indeed, it has always been awkward for seemingly independent actors such as the Supreme Court justices, military officers and foreign diplomats to sit front-and-center in the House chamber during presidential addresses.
That juxtaposition came to a head during Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address, when Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito openly took issue with the president’s criticism of the high court’s recent Citizens United case on campaign finance. “Not true,” Alito was seen saying, shaking his head.
Not long after, Roberts blasted the “pep rally” nature of presidential addresses to Congress. Since then, fewer justices have shown up for the presidential speeches each year. Let’s hope it stays that way. The content of the president’s speech is what’s important, not the theatrics.