The State of the Union address is preceded each year by another annual ritual: Several weeks of debate in the FiveThirtyEight newsroom about how much we should cover the State of the Union. Is it all flash? Does it really matter? We’re not sure we’ve settled on the perfect answer, but in the interest of transparency, we tasked two of our politics writers with making their case — first that the State of the Union doesn’t matter, and then that it does.
Get rid of the State of the Union
By Perry Bacon Jr.
The State of the Union is terrible. Well, the state of the State of the Union — the presidential speech to Congress in late January or early February and all the pomp and circumstance surrounding it — is terrible. It’s American politics at its worse, and it’s bad no matter who the president is.
First: media hype. Few presidential speeches are carried live by so many networks. So why is this one? The most honest answer is probably that they’ve always done it. And since the major networks have long pre-empted their regularly scheduled programming to show the State of the Union, they can’t really stop doing that now without being accused of bias by whichever president ends up being the first whose speech does not get this treatment. But at the same time, the networks can’t say, “We’re covering this only because we are scared not to.”
So the big networks instead frame the State of the Union as a particularly important speech, even though the president rarely makes real news in it. (Do you remember any of Barack Obama’s State of the Union addresses?) That’s a bad combination. All the networks bring in massive panels of analysts to dissect the speech. These analysts then seem to go out of their way to try to be profound.
This often does not go well.
After President Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress last year,1 for example, a CNN analyst declared, “He became president of the United States in that moment, period,” and, “That was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics.” This was when Trump honored the widow of a Navy Seal who had died in a raid in Yemen. I’m skeptical that was one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of American politics. I also think that Trump became president on Jan. 20, 2017, and gave a more memorable speech that day.
Second, the State of the Union tends to produce peak “Green Lanternism.” The “Green Lantern theory of the presidency” was coined by Dartmouth government professor Brendan Nyhan — riffing on a Matthew Yglesias concept — and likens how Americans view the power of the president (no matter who he is) to the DC Comics’ character Green Lantern, who has a ring that lets him will anything he can think of into existence. This theory of the presidency imagines that willpower and “leadership” can solve any problem, without considering how presidents are constrained by public opinion, the Congress, the judiciary and other factors.
The media seems predisposed to Green Lantern thinking at the best of times, but the State of the Union tends to make it that much worse. What could be a more inaccurate portrayal of how American government actually works than having the president (any president, not just Trump) spend an hour laying out his agenda unfiltered, as if what he decrees will then become law? And in fact, most of what presidents propose in State of the Union addresses never gets enacted — in the past few years, the vast, vast majority goes nowhere.
Third, the speech itself tends to be meh. The State of the Union norm has become that the president speaks for about an hour and addresses a wide swath of issues instead of giving a shorter, more focused speech. The laundry-list approach to the State of the Union usually results in a speech that is long and dull. But more important, it basically forces presidents to talk about issues that aren’t anywhere near their top priorities. Do you remember the education proposal Trump described in his speech last year? I bet Trump doesn’t really either.
That’s just three ways the State of the Union sucks. But I could probably write 47 more if I had the time and space.
The state of the State of the Union is strong
By Julia Azari
I was told that screaming, “It’s required in the Constitution!” repeatedly does not constitute an adequate argument. So, why should we keep the State of the Union? Here are a couple of reasons.
First, it’s as close as most people get to seeing the modern process for governing. The way our government works nowadays basically boils down to this: The president acts as an agenda-setter and coordinator, but Congress has to, you know, craft and pass a bill. The State of the Union embodies that dynamic, what presidential scholar Richard Neustadt referred to as “separate institutions sharing power.” The president lays out a legislative agenda, in front of Congress, and it can respond or not.
In other words, while the speech itself doesn’t tend to change much, it’s a useful symbol. Although the president is at the center of the event, it tends to revolve around him asking Congress to do something, and we can actually see Congress, sitting there, reacting to the speech. The president can address the members of the other party in Congress and ask for their cooperation; or, as Obama did in 2015, he can acknowledge the depth of the policy disagreements and challenge his partisan opponents to work with him anyway.
Of course, this year a number of Democratic lawmakers are skipping the event. Others are bringing “Dreamers” — people who entered the country without documents as children — in order to highlight the issue and express disagreement with the president’s actions up to this point. Most people aren’t going to read policy briefs about the issues at stake, but tonight’s event allows them to witness the ways in which their elected officials are treating these policy differences.
Sure, it’s theater, but it’s more representative of the larger process of legislating than, for example, an Oval Office address, which really does contribute to the Green Lantern effect.
Second, the State of the Union forces the president and his administration to sit down and think about the vision behind their governing agenda. The clause of the Constitution that asks the president to “give Congress information of the state of the union” is really asking not just that the president propose some policies, but that the president defines the problems the country faces. We all have a shorter attention span these days, but there’s value in having a leader lay out an idea about what needs to be done.
Finally, ritual itself is important for democracy. It’s true that the State of the Union isn’t an ancient one, but the televised address has been going on for decades now. The address has been delivered out loud to Congress for about 100 years, with a few exceptions, and a written annual message was submitted before that. Presidents’ participation in this routine reminds us that we have a government of laws and not of individuals, and that the office transcends any single person in it.
After the last couple of years in politics, that message might be more important than anything the president actually says.