Let me begin this post by stating just how much I hate the modern State of the Union address. What was originally intended be a barebones message from the president to the Congress, typically read by the clerk of the House of Representatives to a joint session the legislative branch, has devolved into a spectacle that would make an MTV Sweet Sixteener blush.
But it wasn’t always this way. Presidents Washington and Adams did give live addresses to Congress, but Jefferson, famous for his meek voice and even meeker public speaking abilities, delivered a simple letter explaining how he was best carrying out the functions of the office. From then on out all presidents until Woodrow Wilson delivered their state of the union messages the Jeffersonian way.
What changed this humble recount of finances and priorities into a Super Bowl-style bash was the development of presidential populism, or using what Teddy Roosevelt called the attention-grabbing “bully pulpit” of the chief executive to cajole the public and the Congress into adopting his preferred programs.
For a hundred years since, every president has declared every number of miracles large and small (almost always large) that will come if the plebiscite would just give him more time, more power, and of course, more money. You name it, they’ve promised. From fighting world war, ending poverty, controlling labor, regulating business, funding schooling, protecting the environment, defeating communism, ensuring health care for all, and every other subject that polls above 70%.
Though not entirely responsible for our ritualistic quadrennial overhyped presidential contests, where both nominees are demanded by the press and the people to promise everything to all people while not asking anything from anyone, the state of union has served to entrench our continually growing and growing expectations of an office that functionally can do less and less effectively.
It cannot be doubted that a main reason that opinion polls for the president and every political institution (except the military) are in the toilet is because our expectations of government far outpace its ability to deliver. In generations past, the process of electing a president was much akin to electing a county sheriff at the national level.
Nobody in the voting booth trying to decide on a sheriff’s election asks what the potential chief law enforcement officer’s “vision” for the county is, nor is the question “where does s/he want to take us as a county?” ever broached. All that is asked and all that is answered is how will the candidate best enforce the law in a fair, just, and impartial matter. And such was the presidency in a different time and place.
Not anymore. The president must be everyone’s mommy, daddy, psychologist, teacher, preacher, economist, investment guru, manufacturer, national healer, scientist, doctor, IT director, ceremonial speaker, motivational speaker, life coach, and any other obligatory role a bored and pondering press can conjure up. He must restore the climate, stop racism, end tyranny, heal the sick, teach the illiterate, fund innovation, run car companies, protect the children, stop gun violence, save the whales, change the internet, eliminate corruption, build mass transit, get rid of violence against women, stop discrimination against gays, transgendered people, the disabled, and eskimos. His is a mission statement that never ends because it must never end if the 24 news cycle is to survive.
But perhaps there will come a day soon where the Jeffersonian tradition of the tight-lipped chief executive returns from the dead. If Americans can once against find it within themselves to moderate their expectations from politicians, perhaps it will not be so long after that they moderate their expectations from government.
That, or at least its word count.