The State of the Union address has become one of the least interesting, least surprising rituals of the presidency, resisting all attempts at innovation. And yet presidents have clung to it, using the speech to claim authorship of the legislative agenda and usurping the role of Congress both physically and rhetorically in the process.
Lawmakers have done little to resist this open challenge to their authority. Until now.
As Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow House Democrats combat President Trump, blocking the State of the Union address if the government had remained shut down was both a symbolic way to contest his legislative authority and a pragmatic path to dimming the media spotlight that he hopes can restore his plummeting poll numbers. Disrupting the tradition may be even more of an affront to Trump, a TV-obsessed president who tracks ratings almost as closely as polls.
In Article II, Section 3 , the Constitution mandates 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.” It does not state how or when these recommendations should be given. Rather, it introduces this expectation as part of a checks-and-balances system designed to hold the executive accountable to Congress for his actions. A report initially intended to help lawmakers manage oversight of the executive branch took more than a century to metastasize into the potent rhetorical weapon it now represents for presidents.
Both George Washington and John Adams delivered short in-person addresses to Congress. Thomas Jefferson, however, introduced a precedent that would stick for 112 years. He believed that these speeches gave too much attention and power to the executive. So he opted to send the 1801 report in a letter, a tactic his successors followed.
This reflected the power dynamics between the president and Congress during the 19th century. The presidency mostly remained a small office (except during the Civil War and Reconstruction, when its expansion in tandem with the growth of federal power caused controversy and even an impeachment crisis). In general, the office was considered more valuable for its patronage powers than for its ability to sway Congress to enact specific legislation. Instead, politicians used the floor of the House or the Senate to carve out influence. It was there that figures like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun shaped legislative discussions about tariffs, western expansion and slavery with eloquent speeches designed to influence their peers and the broader public, who followed the debates in local newspapers.
By the turn of the 20th century, new technology combined with pressure for political and economic reform to allow ambitious presidents like Theodore Roosevelt to remake the operations of the White House and recraft the job’s responsibilities in the popular imagination. Transforming the executive office into a bully pulpit, Roosevelt toured the country, hired advisers to help him shape news coverage and cultivated relationships with reporters to create an “image of presidential activism” that justified the expansion of a new administrative state.
Woodrow Wilson built on that work and treated the annual message to Congress as a unique opportunity to expand his legislative presence. Known as an eloquent speaker, Wilson sought to translate his rhetoric into concrete policies. So, on April 8, 1913, he traveled down Pennsylvania Avenue with only one Secret Service guard to deliver the first live annual report to Congress since Adams.
Wilson shocked many senators, in particular, who feared that such publicity was usurping their legislative power. But it worked. The speech set the stage for four pieces of legislation — the Underwood Tariff, the Federal Reserve Act, the Clayton Antitrust Act and the establishment of the Federal Trade Commission — that Wilson helped to pass over the next 18 months by bringing his bully pulpit to Capitol Hill.
Wilson’s address to Congress soon became a presidential tradition with tremendous benefits. Appearing in person made the president the star of the legislative show, and as Wilson’s successors, notably Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, expanded the powers of the executive and the role of the federal government in American life, the annual address to Congress became a tool to justify their newly assumed legislative authority.
Consider, for example, Roosevelt’s most famous annual message to Congress. With war raging in Europe, Roosevelt appeared on Capitol Hill (and in millions of homes, over the radio) in 1941 to deliver a speech that framed the international conflict as a fight to defend the “Four Freedoms.” While two of these freedoms, speech and worship, were entrenched in the Bill of Rights, the two others were introduced in his New Deal — the freedom from fear and the freedom from want. By linking his domestic legislative agenda to the international struggle against fascism, Roosevelt deeply ingrained the notion of an active federal government, with a strong and expansive executive at its head, in both domestic and international politics.
The introduction of television shifted even more power to the executive branch. Eager to cultivate amiable relationships with presidents and to fulfill their public-interest obligation, the three commercial networks routinely cleared their entertainment programming to give the president unfiltered access to the public during major addresses. The State of the Union speech, first televised in 1947 (and first officially called so that year), became an example of how presidents could tip the balance of power by appearing regularly on the networks.
Having just won a landslide election, Johnson sought to advance the moral imperative behind his Great Society in the first prime-time television slot for a State of the Union address, in 1965. The speech revealed Johnson’s place as “Chief Legislator,” and it launched an unprecedented year of congressional productivity that resulted in legislation ranging from Medicare to the Voting Rights Act to immigration reform. It also left Republicans in Congress complaining about being “bullied, badgered, and brainwashed.”
But growing attention on the State of the Union created an opportunity for Johnson’s opponents. In 1966, Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) and Rep. Gerald Ford (R-Mich.) asked the networks for a chance to respond to the address. The networks complied, but aired their response five days later and late at night. Still, the GOP campaign for “equal” and “fair” coverage continued, and eventually the networks agreed to the opposition rebuttal directly after the speech, which is now ingrained in State of the Union programming.
By the 1990s, the golden age of presidential television was over, and with the splintering of news, sports and entertainment on cable, presidents no longer had the command of the nation the way they did during the broadcast era. This has made symbolic media events like the State of the Union even more valuable: Because of the hype surrounding the address, it may be a rare chance for the president to attract national viewership. So presidents have used invited guests to personalize their policy goals and enhance their moral authority, while lawmakers use brightly colored clothing to catch the camera’s eye and aggressive rebuttals to pierce holes in White House logic.
For Trump, the spotlight is less important than the gravitas the State of the Union conveys. The address is one of the few ritualistic ways for him to display that elusive quality of being “presidential,” particularly important during the shutdown crisis. By threatening that platform, Pelosi made a tactical play to keep momentum on her side. But she also made a grand strategic move: wresting back the legislative leadership that Congress handed over more than a century ago. This battle with Trump could reshape the legislative bargaining process for all of 2019.