The U.S. Constitution enumerates that 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 rather vague clause evolved into what we now know as the State of the Union Address. Of late, however, the American tradition has departed from its outlined purpose, informing and advising Congress, and has shifted towards a theatrical spectacle of polarized partisan politics. The address is now another platform for presidents to pander to their base and for presidential opponents to show their visceral distaste.
Consider, for example, the most recent State of the Union Address on Feb. 4. In summary, it consisted of President Trump’s characteristic self-congratulations, a borderline pep rally by Republicans and noticeably pouty, adamant silence from the Democrats.
The airing of the address packed in as much drama as a Keeping up with the Kardashians season finale, largely thanks to the elephant in the room named impeachment. The tension culminated in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s dramatic destruction of her copy of the president’s speech.
The current State of the Union model has three main issues: the misleading or incorrect information in the speech itself, the distracting theatrics from attendees and the overall minimal effect on the American people at large. The solution? Revert back to the norm of the 19th century and part of 20th century—a straightforward written document with no televised event.
The first issue, misinformation, sprung out of the speech’s shift in purpose from informing to pandering. Rather than stating facts to accurately reflect the nation’s current state, presidents of both parties for several decades have presented only what reflects well on themselves. Their confusing rhetoric and oversimplification has ultimately misled viewers.
For example, President Trump said on Feb. 4, “In eight years under the last administration, over 300,000 working age people dropped out of the workforce. In just three years of my administration, 3.5 million people, working age people, have joined the workforce.”
These numbers sound objective and paint Trump’s presidency in a good light. However, his assertions oversimplify reality. According to NPR, the fall in the workforce participation rate under Obama’s administration was largely due to an aging workforce as baby boomers reached retirement age. Trump’s statement leaves out the rate of job creation, which has increased more slowly under Trump than Obama.
An effective written address would include citations to support its figures. This practice would convey accurate information without any rhetoric aimed at bolstering political status. A streamlined document would curb the address’s style of presidential showmanship that presents more like a campaign rally than a delivery of updates and requests.
Secondly, theatrics put on by attendees contribute to the problem with the current setup. More than anything, these political displays are a waste of time and only worsen the nation’s widening divide.
Most noticeable, perhaps, is the partisan applause that seems to erupt every other minute. Applause as a political statement during the address has taken off in recent years, with Obama’s addresses averaging at 90 instances each and Trump’s 2018 address having nearly 30 minutes total of applause, according to an analysis by CBS News.
And then there are the dramatic displays of dissent, like Pelosi’s shredding of the most recent address while standing behind the president. These spectacles waste viewers’ time. Worse, they further polarize the two parties. Elimination of the visual event altogether would help the country avoid unproductive political melodrama from such immaturity and needless quarreling.
Finally, we have the cherry on top of the issue. Despite the drama and time-wasting aimed towards shifting public opinion, recent polls have found that the televised State of the Union does little to change Americans’ minds, especially in the past several years.
Historically, according to New York Magazine, presidents’ approval ratings usually receive a temporary 10-20% bump following a State of the Union address. Per annual polls commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers, however, President Trump’s approval rating has only grown by between 7 and 10 points after each of his addresses.
Specifically, when looking at poll results separated by race, age and gender following the 2020 address, it seems that the State of the Union has boosted approval within the president’s base but does little or nothing to sway those outside of that subgroup. Such a result suggests, again, the atmosphere of a reelection rally.
A written address would refocus the State of the Union away from winning support and smiting an opposing party and back to its original purpose outlined in the Constitution. This change would be nothing revolutionary. It would simply pick back up again with what was normal for over 100 years in American politics.
America does not need another sensational renewal of The Real Housewives of D.C. (the State of the Union). Citizens and Congress alike deserve a concise account of their country’s progress and needs, free from drama and needless partisan bickering. The solution is clear: bring back the written address.
Image courtesy of The Independent