The State of the Union

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Photo: NPR

Photo: NPR

Photo: NPR

Veronika Matysiak, Staff Writer

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President Trump’s first State of the Union last Tuesday began with an introduction. “Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, the First Lady of the United States, and my fellow Americans.” he spoke. This public address, originally intended to be the president’s method of proposing his legislative agenda to Congress, is now just one speech out of the thousands the President offers to the public annually.

Article II, Section III of the Constitution requires that the president “shall from time to time give Congress information of the state of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” In a nutshell, the framers included the foundations for the State of the Union address in the Constitution as a form of communication between the executive and legislative branches. Presidents give a State of the Union address every year around January or February, except for the year the take office. Washington was the first president to make an address in person, and the tradition continued with his successor, John Adams. However the third president Thomas Jefferson chose to present a written address in the form of a letter to Congress. Woodrow Wilson was the first modern president to resume giving the State of the Union in person. In total, there have been 95 addresses to Congress that count as the State of the Union.

The first State of the Union was different than the State of the Union we know today. When Washington gave the address, he outlined his achievements from the past year and presented his vision for the next. Congress listened, deliberated, and returned to Washington with a counter-proposition outlining their plans for the next year. This created a bipartisan agenda that satisfied both the President and the Congress and allowed the government to enact legislation that benefited the nation.

In our overly partisan and hyper-connected reality, one cannot help but wonder how useful the State of the Union is to running an efficient government. The primary reasoning behind creating the State of the Union in the first place, facilitating communication, has become obsolete with the rise of media as a form of communication. Take Twitter as an example. Today, the President has the power to address the public several times a day without ever leaving the White House. Trump’s tweets are further promoted by the televised media sources, where talk-show hosts spend hours dissecting tweet contents and informing their viewers on Trump’s message. Such communication with the public can be extended to understand that Congress is also hearing about the President’s message, including his political achievements and proposed future agenda. If everyone already seems to understand what the President wants, what is the point of the State of the Union?

Not only has the State of the Union lost its purpose, it has devolved into a ultra-partisan sideshow and political victory lap for the President and his supporters. For many years now, the State of the Union has been a speech lacking in substance, overfilled with dozens of guests and partisan applause lines that seem to take up half the speaking time. Trump’s speech clocked in at 80 minutes, during which he personally introduced 17 guests and received 115 rounds of applause, averaging 1.4 rounds of applause per minute. The content of the State of the Union is hardly remarkable either. Most of the speech was a recap of the year, focusing particularly on Republican legislative achievements.

Although the Constitution is vague on what exactly is supposed to be in the State of the Union, it is clear that original idea intended by the founders has been neglected. The modern State of the Union does nothing to facilitate communication between the President and the legislature, frequently invoking the divisive spirit of partisanship it was meant to alleviate.

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