The State of the Union Address is Woodrow Wilson’s gift to future presidents. President Thomas Jefferson submitted the annual update the Constitution mandated in writing, deeming presidential appearances before Congress too monarchical. In December 1913, after his first year in office, Wilson decided to address a joint session of Congress directly. Ninety-six-years and a little more than one month later, Barack Obama took full advantage of President Wilson’s gift, appearing crisp and commanding after weeks when even the so-far-embarrassingly-pliant Washington press corps was starting to doubt Obama’s allure.
The mathematics of the State of the Union enhance the dramatics. There stands the Commander in Chief – nowadays the Celebrity in Chief, too – flanked by his Vice President and the Speaker of the House. Things in Washington have become so staged that, this year, when Vice President Joseph Biden’s purple tie matched Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s purple outfit observers wondered if their staffers coordinated their clothing. Everyone else crowded into the House of Representatives chamber is also reduced to a prop. Cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices, Generals of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 100 Senators, and 435 Representatives, sit in the well. America’s legislators end up looking ridiculous not just diminished, as the members of the President’s party bob up and down giving their leader repeated standing ovations and loud “Huzzahs!” while their rivals alternate between clapping begrudgingly and sitting in stony silence. The President wafts over the chaos, doling out his pearls of wisdom, as the people’s representatives act like schoolkids engaged in locker-room antics.
These days, the magic of television magnifies the speech’s power. The first State of the Union speech was broadcast on radio in 1923, and on television in 1947, benefitting Harry Truman as he began planning a 1948 campaign few thought he would win. Televising the speech further trivializes America’s political elite because the President speaks past them to the real audience, the American people.
Obama started strong. His presence, his fluidity, his characteristic calm and charm, reminded Americans why they elected him. Rather than trying to play cute with the usual formulation – some variation at the beginning of “the state of our union is strong” – he acknowledged the economic “devastation” and Americans’ “anxieties.” Evoking the Civil War and World War II, the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement, he reminded Americans that, when tested before, they “answer[ed] history’s call.”
Obama quickly plunged into a much-needed defense of the bank bailout and his stimulus plan. In his most human moment, he acknowledged that Democrats and Republicans united in hating the bailout: “I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal.” His stimulus defense appeared more substantive as he detailed the bill’s accomplishments. But to avoid being too professorial, Obama failed to connect the dots, not quite explaining how that controversial bill actually created the jobs he enumerated.
On health care, Obama struck the right balance between being resolute and contrite. For a “Mr. Spock” type far more similar to George W. Bush in refusing to be self-critical than to the perpetually-apologetic Bill Clinton, Obama said: “I take my share of the blame for not explaining it [the health care reform] more clearly to the American people.” As usual, Obama was better at restating the need for reform than justifying his particular prescription, but he used the power of the podium brilliantly in challenging the opposition, saying: “if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors and stop insurance company abuses, let me know.” An uncomfortable silence reigned among the chastened Republicans, who seemed to shrink more.
Perhaps the night’s most poignant moment came when America’s political messiah of 2008 confessed his mortality in 2010. “I campaigned on the promise of change…,” the Yes-we-can man said, “[b]ut remember this – I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone. Democracy in a nation of three hundred million people can be noisy and messy and complicated.” The President was half-right. Change is hard; but his campaign certainly implied it would be easy, which was part of its charm then, and explains the inevitable disappointment now.
Obama finished with a pep talk for partisans combined with the storyline he hopes will hold the independents. “We have finished a difficult year. We have come through a difficult decade,” he said, once again bashing Bush. “But a new year has come. A new decade stretches before us. We don’t quit. I don’t quit,” he roared, flashing the partisan steel he honed in Chicago’s political wards. “Let’s seize this moment — to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our union once more.”
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Visiting Scholar affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
Reprinted with permission from the History News Network.