The president "shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient," the Constitution says. But must he do it with such pomp and circumstance; with the bloviating exposition of so little substance; with the pageant reaction shots of Congress, all sycophantic to one audience or another; with the multiplying response speeches, each as empty as their vacuous prompt; with prop guests and press hyper-analysis and the near-religious routine of obligatory applause?
In a word, no.
None of this need happen at all — and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Wednesday move to postpone 2019's State of the Union address until President Trump agrees to end the partial government shutdown offers a rare opening for reform.
To be sure, that is not Pelosi's goal. She is playing a shrewd politics, leveraging Trump's engrossing love of televised self-aggrandizement against his fixation on this border wall fantasy. The ploy could work. It may be the loss of Narcissus' pool, rather than its discovery, which here undoes him.
But regardless of Pelosi's short-term aims, her invitation to Trump to send Congress a written SOTU as an alternative to total postponement could be the very disruption needed to undo this annual habit of glossing a vainglorious campaign speech with officialdom and pretending it is a serious policy pronouncement.
There is historical precedent aplenty. Though the first two presidents addressed Congress in person, Thomas Jefferson's rejection of the practice as monarchic — and therefore unsuitable for the elected administrator of a republic — held sway for a century. Woodrow Wilson revived the speechifying in 1913 ("All official Washington was agape last night over the decision of the president to go back to the long-abandoned custom," The Washington Post reported), and successive presidents have generally followed suit.
When the speech was delayed or replaced with a written update in the century since Wilson's switch, it has generally been due to national crisis (FDR and Harry Truman during World War II), looming presidential departure (most recently, Jimmy Carter in 1981), or public tragedy (Ronald Reagan after the Challenger disaster in 1986).
That the verbal delivery of the SOTU would feel inappropriate under such circumstances is telling, for there could be nothing inappropriate about fulfilling the Constitution's requirement with a written report. The administration of government continues amid national crisis, the end of a presidential term, and public tragedy, and there is no reason a sober update on that activity should be disrespectful to the national mood. Provision of facts, figures, and recommended solutions to identified problems is not offensive. We have yet to see outrage because the Government Accountability Office continues to publish reports amid catastrophe or controversy.
No, what makes SOTU inappropriate in these situations is not its existence but its form. It is unfitting for an imperial president to gladhand his way down the aisle and bask in his party's adulation when more serious things are afoot. We can no longer forget how silly it is to get caught up in scrutiny of the first lady's dress or Supreme Court justices' facial expressions or the weird mishaps of whatever rising young star of the opposition party is tasked with giving the year's response. It becomes inescapable that the SOTU is purely an exercise in political performance, and we somehow have enough decency left that no amount of stage management can make that appropriate in the face of real crisis.
And here's the thing: There's always a real crisis at hand. We are a nation perpetually at war in half a dozen nations halfway around the globe. We maintain the largest prison population on the planet, outpacing even totalitarian regimes and states with far more total residents. These and other crises — I stop the list here because there are too many options to consider, not too few — hum a constant tune not silenced by our inattention. If a vapid, performative SOTU is inappropriate given some acute crisis we cannot ignore, it remains inappropriate in the face of these chronic tragedies.
The president can fulfill his constitutional duty to update Congress on the state of the union with a letter, and, going forward, a letter should suffice. The written format encourages greater specificity and prudence, devalues hollow rhetorical flourish, and declines to contribute to the overgrown authority of the American presidency. Let's make this piece of the shutdown permanent.