Thursday, January 15, 2015

Backstory on SOTU: TJ wouldn't approve -- Jan. 15, 2015 column


On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama will ride in his limo to the Capitol where, bathed in TV light, he will deliver his State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress. 

Ho hum, you may say with 21st century ennui. Big deal. We don’t think twice about presidents appearing before Congress.

But nobody was blasé in April 1913 when President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress in person. It was shocking.

Presidents in those days didn’t deliver speeches to Congress. They followed the model of Thomas Jefferson and sent carefully written reports.  

The Constitution requires that a 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.” It’s silent on how the information should be delivered.

Presidents George Washington and John Adams gave annual messages to Congress in person, but Jefferson ceased the practice. He found the pomp and ceremony too reminiscent of the English monarch’s “speech from the throne” to Parliament. The first two presidents had appeared with quite the entourage -- their entire Cabinets and all their secretaries.

Jefferson apparently wasn’t a polished public speaker and the Capitol wasn’t yet finished, so he was happy to give the speech a pass. So were his successors.   

Wilson, the Virginia-born former president of Princeton University and former governor of New Jersey, was a gifted orator at ease before crowds. He said when he broke with the tradition: 

“I think that (a personal appearance) is the only dignified way for the president to address Congress at the opening of a session, instead of sending the address to be read perfunctorily in the clerk’s familiar tone of voice. It is a precedent which, it is true, has been discontinued a long time, but which is a very respectable precedent.”

Wilson gave a brief speech and made the trip simply, driving to the Capitol with one Secret Service man. His male secretary followed in his own car, The New York Times reported. Democrat Wilson was fortunate to have Democrats in control of both houses of Congress.

After appearing in person before Congress a few weeks after his inauguration, Wilson went back to Congress in June and August of 1913. He started weekly press conferences. That December, he gave his first annual message to Congress – what we now call the State of the Union Address.  

Subsequent presidents went back and forth between written and oral State of the Union messages and some delivered both. Since Reagan, presidents have delivered speeches. The first official televised response by members of the opposing party came in 1966. In 2010, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell gave the official Republican response.
This will be Obama’s sixth State of the Union Address, and he’s a lame duck. His legislative wish list will be dismissed as mostly fantasy – if people watch at all.

Viewership of Obama’s State of the Union speech last year dropped to its lowest level since his first address. In 2009, about 52.4 million people tuned in to see Obama. Last year, just 33.3 million watched. That was also the lowest viewership for the State of the Union since Nielsen began keeping track in 1993. That year, Bill Clinton’s first, 66.9 million people watched.

Presidents often hit the road to sell their proposals after the State of the Union address. Obama has tried to build interest in his speech by previewing his proposals. He quipped that with only two years left in his term, he couldn’t wait for the speech to roll out his ideas.

Traveling around the country, he announced an array of proposals aimed at improving the lives of middle-class Americans. These include making community colleges free, stepping up cybersecurity measures, expanding broadband service, protecting the environment and allowing workers paid family and sick leave.

The catch is that many of Obama’s proposals require the approval of Congress. That will be no mean feat -- even after the president stands before a joint session and makes his pitch in person.  

© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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