Wednesday, February 5, 2020

It Isn't "The State of the Union," But Rather "The State of the Divide"

by Michael Bitzer

Based on last night's performance of the State of the Union, I have to think that there is a real possibility we have seen the last televised State of the Union (SOTU) before a joint session of Congress when the House of Representatives is controlled by the party opposite the White House.

In other words: another norm broken.

First, some historical & constitutional perspectives about States of the Union.

Article II, Section 3, Clause 3 states “He [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...

This is the constitutional foundation of the SOTU. Notice there's nothing said about how the "Information on the State of the Union" shall be given. And it's "from time to time"--nothing constitutionally specific there either. 

George Washington delivered his first SOTU in person to a joint session of Congress. John Adams followed that practice. Afterwards, Thomas Jefferson sent his address but did not appear, believing that the address smacked of being too ‘royal,’ akin to the British monarch’s State Opening of Parliament.

This practice of delivering, but not presenting, the SOTU continued up to Woodrow Wilson in 1913. An interesting side-note: after the 10 minute address (can you imagine), the First Lady remarked on the ride back to the White House that Wilson had done something his political rival, Theodore Roosevelt, would have done “if only he had thought of it.”

Wilson, laughing, is said to have responded: “Yes, I think I put one over on Teddy.” 

In total, 96 presidential in-person addresses have been delivered between 1790 to 2019. 

Modern SOTU have been given in the House Chamber, but again (note the Constitution), nothing demands that the address be given in that location. Up until 1965, the address was typically given during the day to a joint session.

However, in 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt held the first evening SOTU, using the power of radio to broadcast his address, akin to his fireside chats. 

Another evening address to a joint session of Congress was delivered by Woodrow Wilson, but this was seeking a declaration of war on Germany in 1917.

In 1965, Lyndon Johnson broke with tradition by having the SOTU televised at night. 

In 1982, Ronald Reagan incorporated the recognition of guests to the #SOTU, and every president since has done so as well.

So, that’s a brief history of SOTU and how different forms of delivery have been done over time, typically matching the opportunities of the day and the president’s style.

In my introduction to this post, I noted the following condition: “when the House of Representatives is controlled by the party opposite the White House” (emphasis added). What we saw last night was not necessarily a “State of the Union,” but rather a “State of the Divide” of our nation.

The president is formally invited by the Speaker of the House to deliver the SOTU. What the Speaker can invite, the Speaker can decide not to extend the invitation.

Another break in the ‘norm’: the use of the simple introductory statement of “Members of Congress, the president of the United States,” rather than the traditional “Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the President of the United States.” 

The lack of a handshake between the President and the Speaker when he handed her a copy of his speech.

And then, of course, the ripping up of the speech by the Speaker at the conclusion of the speech.

Again, if the Speaker decides that the opposition party’s President is simply going to use the SOTU as a ‘red-meat’ partisan base address, she/he has the constitutional right to say “not in my chamber.”

That would only inflame the partisan divide and continue the norm-busting that has been so prevalent in the past few years. But this norm-busting is reflective of our deep polarization and partisan divide.

There are other venues that the President could decide to use as a SOTU venue, and nothing in the Constitution prohibits him/her from doing so.

But the traditions, the norms of our democratic-republic, the symbolism of bringing the three branches of government together, if for no other reason than to symbolize the state of our union…well, perhaps those traditions and norms are outdated in our current political environment.

And that is my fear for what the future holds for our grand experiment in self-governance.