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“Mr./Madam Speaker! The President of the United States!”
That’s how the Sergeant-at-Arms announces the beginning of the State of the Union, the speech the president delivers in front of Congress every year. The Constitution requires 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.”
But this year’s edition is a little more complicated.
After the shutdown led Speaker Nancy Pelosi to temporarily disinvite President Donald Trump from speaking to a joint session of Congress, some are wondering whether the speech is worth delivering to begin with.
Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana and current president of Purdue University, wrote in The Washington Post that the “political mud wrestling” over the State of the Union means it’s time for the speech to be retired.
Effusive, cued applause, camera-conscious backslapping, stony-faced growls of disapproval and eventually even catcalls from America’s lawmakers have drained what little was left of a serious tutorial about national challenges and priorities. What remains: a tired, farcical theatrical experience more likely to promote cynicism than citizenship in its viewers.
Daniel suggests the State of the Union be delivered in the form of a letter instead, which is how it was done earlier in the nation’s history.
Julia Azari, writing for FiveThirtyEight, notes that the speech (or its response) “rarely affects policy or public opinion.”
She goes on to argue that Pelosi’s actions were an opportunity for Congress to reaffirm itself as a co-equal branch of government.
Even under these highly polarized conditions, symbolic acts like the State of the Union can create a superficial sense that things are normal. In contrast, the exchange between Pelosi and Trump is a rare example of how the symbols of normality can sometimes be broken down to match the underlying dynamics of the situation. And while it’s back to business as usual for now, this fight underscores how breaking norms sometimes actually protects democratic values.
So, what’s the history behind the State of the Union? Is it obsolete?
Produced by Stef Collett
- Mitch Daniels President of Purdue University, former governor of Indiana; @purduemitch
- Cody Keenan Senior advisor and chief speechwriter to President Barack Obama, professor of political science at Northwestern University, lead writer for four State of the Union speeches, @codykeenan
- Donna Hoffman Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Northern Iowa; co-author of 'Addressing the State of the Union: The Evolution and Impact of the President’s Big Speech'.
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