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3 Reasons to Watch the State of the Union (Hint: the Content of the President’s Speech Isn't One)

Posted by Ryan Petersen on

Ryan Petersen

Ryan Petersen

I love watching the State of the Union Address, but not for the reasons one might think. Let’s face it, the President’s speech (whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican in office) is usually pretty boring…even for a political science professor like me, let alone someone who doesn’t have an abnormally high level of interest in American government.

We all expect the President to recognize a handful of guests sitting in the gallery with the First Lady, after which he will launch into a laundry list of proposals for the upcoming year (the overwhelming majority of which will never even be considered, let alone become actual policy). So why watch? There are three reasons that I look forward to the State of the Union Address every year and that I think make watching worthwhile for every American.

Reason #1: It illustrates the remarkable flexibility of the U.S. Constitution.

The basis for the State of the Union address is found in Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution, but like many constitutional provisions, it is simultaneously absolute and vague. It does not require the President to give a speech, nor does it specify that it take place annually or at a particular time of the year.

The Constitution simply states 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...” In otherwords, President Obama could fulfill his constitutional obligation by simply texting Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Reid every other year – letting them know that the state of the union is fine and including a few recommendations for the current legislative session!

Historically, the State of the Union hasn’t always been a speech. Whereas George Washington (understandably concerned with the precedents he set as the first President) chose to deliver a formal address, Thomas Jefferson undid this tradition shortly after it began (it was a little too much like the British Monarch opening a session of Parliament for his tastes).

Jefferson preferred to deliver the State of the Union in writing and it was more than a hundred years before another President returned to Washington’s practice of delivering a speech. And there is nothing to prevent a future President from interpreting Article II, Section 3 differently and thus return to Jefferson’s mode of delivery or, perhaps, doing something else altogether.

Reason #2: It’s as close as we come to a parliamentary-style interaction between the President and Congress.

One of the things that I and many of my fellow Americans find sorely lacking in our political system is a formal and public interaction between the President and Congress. This isn’t the case in the British system, where the Prime Minister is not only the head of government, but also a Member of Parliament and the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons. Lacking a separation of powers, it’s not surprising that British Prime Ministers have a much different relationship with the rest of their legislature than does an American President with our own Congress.

Indeed, the State of the Union is the only time where the President and Congress formally and publically interact…and even then there is still precious little interaction. We are collectively shocked when Representative Joe Wilson shouts out “you lie” during the President’s speech. It is seen by most as serious breach of protocol when Justice Samuel Alito shakes his head and appears to mouth the word “no” as the President criticizes a recent Supreme Court decision. I disagree. I would like to see far more interaction (and more lively interaction) between the President and the members of Congress - both during the State of the Union and at other times of the year.

Anyone who has ever seen the “Prime Minister’s Questions” knows that if all that happened during such a session was for a single member of the House of Commons shout “you lie” at the Prime Minister while another shook his head and mouthed the word “no,” it would be, by far, the easiest day that that Prime Minister ever had! Not only is this sort of interaction far more entertaining to watch, it provides a meaningful way for the minority party (and ultimately the voters) to hold their elected officials accountable.

Reason #3: The “designated survivor.”

I sometimes joke with my American government students that the State of the Union is the worst night of the year to be a Secret Service agent. Afterall, everyone in the line of presidential succession (people whom the Secret Service would really prefer to be thousands of miles apart) are not only in the same city, they’re sitting within a few feet of each other in the same room.

Everyone, that is, except for the one member of the Cabinet who is taken to an “undisclosed, secure location” along with a full security detail and a military officer carrying the “football” (the briefcase containing the information needed for a President to authorize the launch of nuclear weapons). I’m something of a Cold War historian and this practice goes back to the days when we feared a nuclear strike on Washington by the Soviet Union during the State of the Union, thus – in the absence of a designated survivor – rendering us unable to retaliate.

For me, the conspicuous absence every year of the designated survivor serves as a reminder. A reminder that, though we certainly face very real security threats today, those threats pale in comparison with the specter of the all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union that we faced during the Cold War. On the other hand, it also reminds us of the continued importance of maintaining continuity of government and, indeed, of the many problems with the current version of the Succession Act.

Opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Andy Rapp, Q-TV, Delta College, or PBS.


Currently Speaking host Andy Rapp

Veteran journalist Andy Rapp has been hosting Currently Speaking since 1999.

Each week, he's joined live in the studio by journalists, academics, and experts. Along with viewers at home, they tackle the local, national, and global issues that matter most.