State of the Union Humbles Presidency

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Kevin Williamson gets it all wrong in a screed against State of the Union speech traditions over at National Review. Williamson sees the whole thing as a proto-fascist glorification of the president, something therefore inappropriate to the American republic.

But that's all wrong, and the best response is something that Matt Glassman -- who is such a fan of Congress and opponent of the modern presidency that he calls himself a Whig -- wrote about the rituals of the SOTU a couple of years ago. It's terrific, so I'm going to give you a large chunk of it, but do click through to read the whole thing.

It matters because of the way it reflects our system of government. The other event that brings the entire government together as a whole is the quadrennial inauguration of the President, which inevitably becomes a celebration of the Presidency. Despite taking place at the Capitol, there's no way around the fact that the modern inaugural suggests a presidency far out of line with the actual powers of the office under the Constitution. In some ways, it feels more like the coronation of a new king than the implementation of an election. Now, don't get me wrong. I love inauguration; the pageantry and the symbolism of it are striking, beautiful, and full of many of the same republic-reinforcing features as the State of the Union address. It's a wonderful event. But, to me, it's like Christmas to the State of the Union's Easter; more important in popular practice, but not nearly as important philosophically.
The State of the Union address, on the other hand, portrays a more basic and correct understanding of the foundations of our republic. The executive is invited to come to Congress by the leadership of the legislature, at a time satisfactory to them. If he accepts, he leaves his residence and comes to the institutional heart of the republic, the chamber of the House of Representatives. He then waits at the door of the chamber until he is introduced by the agents of the legislature, who then lead him down the aisle, where he is received by the elected Representatives of the people and the States. He passes by the Justices of the Court, members of his government, and finally he ascends onto the House dais, where he is again introduced and received by the legislature.
He then begins to talk. What he says may or may not matter, but the way in which he says it sure does. He does not tell the legislature what he is going to do in the following year, for there is very little he can do. He tells the legislature what he believes needs to be done, and then he asks the legislature to do it. In the endless string of presidential debates it can often feel like the President has the ability to wave his hand and enact a policy. But the State of the Union Address reminds everyone that the President of the United States can no more make a law than he can walk on water; never is it more evident how our system of government works. The President comes and visits the Representatives of the people, and he pleads with them to do what he thinks is right for the country.

In other words, Williamson has it exactly backwards: The symbolism of the State of the Union elevates the legislature, not the executive. He's right, of course, that the members who camp out on the aisle for hours so that they can be on national TV for a few seconds are being silly. But it's not about aggrandizing the president; it's about self-advertisement, something that all politicians like to do.

Nor is it as problematic as it appears to him that the chamber applauds for a president who only a decade ago was obscure; indeed, if anything we consider the elevation of nobodies to the White House and other places of power a sign of the strength, not the weakness, of democracy. Meanwhile, he misses the important symbolism that while everyone applauds the president when he's introduced, autonomous, individually important Members of Congress make very different choices about whether to applaud for each of the president's individual proposals. Just as, of course, they all then decide what to do about those proposals once he leaves -- including the always available and well-worn option of completely ignoring them.

There are some ceremonial aspects of the presidency I'd love to shed (including the honorific "Mr. President" after the president leaves office). I also agree that the human prop thing, which I thought was okay when President Ronald Reagan introduced it, has gotten totally out of hand. And I'm all for a more vigorous Congress.

But the State of the Union is, as Matt explains, an excellent republican ritual. And I certainly hope and expect that the next Republican president -- and the Congresses that would necessarily be his or her host -- will continue it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

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