On Wednesday night, an embattled President Barack Obama will deliver his 2010 State of the Union speech. He originally wanted to give it Feb. 2, but — adding to a string of recent indignities — Obama had to yield after irate “Lost” fans made clear they wouldn’t put up with their season premiere getting pre-empted by a lousy presidential speech.
“Lost” is a silly show, a six-year-long “Twilight Zone” episode doomed to end in disappointment. But you can hardly blame Americans for preferring it to the State of the Union, a dull and tacky spectacle that celebrates our retreat from limited, constitutional government.
The Constitution requires that the president “from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union.” But it doesn’t mandate the modern pageant of pomp, circumstance and phony promises we suffer through every year.
In fact, for most of the Republic’s first century, the speech was a modest, informational affair. Presidents sent the written address to Congress, to be read aloud by a clerk. That was thanks to President Thomas Jefferson, who thought delivering the speech before Congress assembled smacked too much of a king’s “speech from the throne.”
When the power-hungry President Woodrow Wilson overturned the Jeffersonian tradition in 1913, one senator cursed the revival of “the old Federalistic custom of speeches from the throne,” calling it a “cheap and tawdry imitation of English royalty.”
The speech only got worse from there, especially after the advent of television and President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to move the address to prime time. That sealed the State of the Union’s transformation into the modern ritual in which the president stands at the front of the House Chamber making exorbitant promises that would shame a carny barker while congress-critters stand and clap like members of the Supreme Soviet cheering a Brezhnev speech.
President Ronald Reagan introduced the unfortunate custom of pointing to “Lenny Skutniks,” ordinary citizens in the audience who help the president hammer home his theme. Skutnik himself was a hero who dove into the icy Potomac River to rescue a plane crash survivor, but lately, presidents tend to bring along “victim Skutniks” who can serve as living arguments for federal activism. In his 2000 speech, President Bill Clinton acknowledged a Columbine parent and anti-gun advocate. And in last year’s address, Obama saluted a young girl trying to learn in a dilapidated school.
Political scientist Elvin T. Lim finds that the modern State of the Union has grown increasingly “compassionate and emotive,” its content more “egalitarian and redistributive.” References to the Constitution, quite common in our first century, have declined, replaced by “an increasing lack of humility” on the part of the president.
After the apparent failure of Obama’s hubristic attempt to take over the health care sector, it’s little wonder so many plan to tune out Wednesday.
Luckily, they have other viewing options. Throughout the 20th century, new developments in broadcast technology increased the bully pulpit’s power. But now, technology’s weakening it. Cable, digital video recording and streaming video have left the president without a captive audience.
When President Richard Nixon gave a prime-time address in 1971, more than half the viewing public watched. In 2003, President George W. Bush pulled in 21 percent.
When Obama had to make way for “Lost,” some lamented the fact that many Americans preferred trash TV over presidential enlightenment. But the public’s lack of interest in the State of the Union is actually a sign of political health.
When all eyes turn to the president, demanding he cure whatever ails us, the result is a dangerous concentration of federal power. Thus, it’s good that our national talk show host suffers from declining Nielsens.
Early indications are that a chastened Obama may retreat into “small ball” with a passel of tax credits and microprograms. Must-see TV this ain’t, but a lessening of presidential ambition would be very good news.
Jimmy Carter was the last president to mail in his speech, in 1981. It’s unlikely that Carter did that out of respect for Jeffersonian principles — he was a lame duck, worried that nobody wanted to hear him. Obama should keep that option in mind for next year.
Examiner columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of “The Cult of the Presidency.”