From its constitutional origins, the State of the Union speech – State of the Union message, gesture, whatever you want to call it – has evolved into a big media event worthy of the Kremlin. Although Article 2 merely directed the president “from time to time” to report on the state of the union, it’s now an annual speech, followed by a response from the party out of power and media evaluations of the president’s own evaluation of the state of the union. What would the framers think about this sober, elaborate ritual, picked apart by the jabbering class commenting on who smiled, who applauded and who walked out?
This discussion is not new. It comes up every year, but it is breathtaking to note the vast change since the days of the framers. From the “state-of-the-union-as-presidential-memo” era (George Washington’s day) we moved to the, "state-of-the-union-as-hand-holding-speech-to-the-American-people” era (Franklin Roosevelt), to something like we have today, a corporate Annual Report, STATE OF THE UNION in all caps and complete with gripping stories of self-sacrificing citizens (like stoic workers with gold watches) pointed out in the gallery (Ronald Reagan brought us this era).
As President Obama delivers his State of the Union Address I’m wondering if the whole State of the Union business was originally envisioned as something quite different from this idea of an uber-status report. What if it was more of a simple reminder that the United States were really united and not some flimsy confederation. Remember the states back then were 13 competitive, quarreling former colonies, and they held most of the power when the U.S. Constitution was written? They needed to be told from time to time that they actually were under a single flag, as hard as that was to believe. Back then, states erected tariffs to protect their industries from other states. The Interstate Commerce Commission was originally created to help the states get along and play by the same rules.
If we needed reminders that we were one nation back in 1787, the British burning Washington D.C. in 1812, a Civil War, two world wars and becoming a superpower in the 20th century changed all that. These days it is the American nation that trumps all other identities. Now we need to be reminded that states exist for reasons beyond fielding University sports teams and stamping license plates. All patriotism is national, not local... but that doesn’t mean we’re not divided.
In these days of polarized electorates and ideologically motivated political tactics, recalling the state of the union is still important. When dysfunctional government seems more like a political program rather than an emergency, we still need the reminder that working together to achieve compromise is how our system gets things done. We need the reminder that we are in the end a Union. From 13 squabbling British colonies to 50 United States to 309 million opinionated uncompromising ideologues: progress?
State of the Union... maybe we need the reminder even more now.