Why I Don’t Care About the State of the Union Address
Does anyone remember when President Obama met with Republicans in 2013 to press for bipartisan reform and simplification of the tax code? What about when the minimum wage was raised to $9 an hour? Or how about when he cut red tape on new oil and gas development? I hope no one does, because none of these things happened despite each being featured in President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address.
When George Washington delivered the first State of the Union in 1790, it took just 833 words. Last year’s SOTU took President Obama a whopping 6,800 words, just short of one hour’s worth of oration. Among modern Presidents, he’s the most verbose besides Bill Clinton. Thomas Jefferson didn’t even bother showing up (there’s no requirement in the Constitution that a President “give to Congress information of the State of the Union” in person) in 1801, and the nation survived just fine for more than a century before Woodrow Wilson finally revived the practice.
When President Obama delivers his speech for 2014, it will no doubt be filled with grand calls for reform and sweeping changes to the nation that he has administered for the last 5 years. Yet little if any of what he prescribes is likely to happen in the coming year.
The dirty secret of the presidency is that presidents have far less say over what happens then they or the media let on, and truly ought to have even less. Other than serving as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, the president is really just an administrator, or glorified bureaucrat. Congress makes the law and holds the ultimate power over the direction of the nation; the president in turn carries it out. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
Presidents have political power, to be sure, and can influence the actions of Congress through various means. But most presidents have enough political capital to push just one or two major initiatives per term. The rest of the time is spent in a largely reactionary capacity, responding to unexpected events as they happen.
Pundits and politicos love the State of the Union, as it’s a chance to ply their craft with greater public attention than usual. If you’re into that sort of thing, I’d highly recommend following the live blog from the Cato Institute with analysis from their numerous experts. But if you are just curious as to what to expect for the coming year, I wouldn’t bother. The 2014 State of the Union address will be largely the same as that of 2013, 2012, 2011..etc. – full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing of import about what will really happen in the year that follows.