In 1999 President Clinton delivered his State of the Union address while his impeachment trial was being conducted in the U.S. Senate. It would have been more seemly for Clinton to postpone his address until the Senate trial had concluded, but Clinton was not into seemly.
Clinton also missed another opportunity.
State of the Union addresses have become largely a waste of time for presidents, for Congress, and for the public. Clinton could have resumed the long tradition, started by Thomas Jefferson and ended by Woodrow Wilson, of sending the report over to Congress in writing.
The 2020 address is scheduled for Feb. 4, but President Trump's trial in the Senate is unlikely to be finished by then. He therefore has an opportunity to do what Clinton failed to do.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who invited him to give the address, has indicated it is up to him to deliver the address on schedule, to postpone it, or to send it over in writing.
I hope he will seriously consider submitting it in writing.
During the last 40 years, the annual address has degenerated into a spectacle.
Presidents brag about purported accomplishments and propose "laundry" lists of legislation designed more to evoke standing ovations or please particular constituents than to be serious proposals to Congress.
Policy choices are difficult because they require hard choices between incompatible goals, but presidents don't discuss this.. They don't explain that government's choices are often between evils and lesser evils.
They treat everything as choices between unequivocally good policies (their own) and unequivocally bad policies (their opponents'). In short, these addresses, televised nationally, don't help Americans understand public policy. They abuse the "bully pulpit" (the focus of constant public attention) occupied by presidents.
A written report could avoid the crowd-pleasing rhetoric, instead focusing soberly on problems and opportunities facing the government. It could include links to detailed analysis for members of Congress and citizens seeking to look further into particular issues.
State of the Union addresses illustrate the disadvantages of combining in one person the roles of ceremonial head of state and operational head of government. In England, the two roles are played by separate officials.
Queen Elizabeth II is head of state, symbolizing the unity of the country and the ongoing nature of its government. She is not "political" and doesn't engage in making policy decisions.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is head of government, makes policy choices, and is ultimately answerable to the electorate. It was in England that the concept of a "loyal opposition" first emerged, it being possible to say "long live the queen" while simultaneously proclaiming "but down with the prime minister!"
Because the American president is both head of state and head of government, it's awkward to say "long live president Trump in his capacity of head of state" while also adding "but down with him in his capacity as head of government."
When President Clinton got a bipartisan standing ovation at the beginning of his 1999 State of the Union address, he received it in his capacity as head of state, even though he was under attack in his capacity as head of government.
If President Trump, despite his ongoing trial, goes ahead on Feb. 4, House members who voted to impeach him will not be contradicting themselves if they give him the traditional ovation, since they will be recognizing him as our head of state for the time-being.
But it could set an excellent example for future presidents if Mr. Trump decides instead to send a sober analysis of the State of the Union over to Congress in writing like all the presidents from Jefferson through Taft.
He might want to wait to do even this, though, just in case it will need to be done by Mike Pence.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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