Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Two Hundred Years of the State of the Union

Last Wednesday, January 27, 2010, President Obama delivered his first State of the Union address.

Traditionally, it is the message of the current President to the US Congress.

In the US Constitution, Article II, Section 3, under a rather scant paragraph “Duties of the President”, the President is directed to give Congress information on the state of the nation and what he considers measures that are just, expedient, even necessary. In other words, what he considers future policy. The frequency of this duty is vague.

But about 200 years later (George Washington delivered a State of the Union address),
many technicalities having evolved along the way, we have a State of the Union once a year. Since about forty years ago, we now even have a rebuttal to the message by the party in opposition.

There is a question that has to be considered. Whose State of the Union address is it anyway? Does it belong to the outgoing President (by about a week), or the newly inaugurated President? Some content describes the condition of the country; future policy is only part of the new President’s message. Obama was sworn in January 2009, so it’s his message.

A President might address the US Congress on different occasions, on various topics, but not in a capacity as delivering a “State of the Union”.

Last Wednesday was a fancy occasion. Everybody came, in their Sunday best. There was a lot of meeting and greeting, including the Supreme Court, Joint Chiefs of Staff, foreign dignitaries, and honored guests.

There usually is a lot of applause, much of it from the President’s own political party. The speech usually is an appealing mix of optimism and patriotism. I don’t recall a lot of very pessimistic details. In fact, details from previous speeches are not remembered that much. Rebuttals are not necessary.

Although a President may be campaigning, this is not a campaign speech. I see it more as a tradition, going back to the origin of our country’s political structure.

For a long time, the State of the Union was not delivered in person at all. It doesn’t have to be. But I don’t hear complaints that it is.

Presidents have given memorable messages to Congress on important occasions: for instance, John Kennedy’s announcement on May 25, 1961 that the US will reach the moon by the end of the sixties.

Maybe last week’s State of the Union was not memorable, but future messages by Obama could be extraordinarily important. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

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