Within the English system of government — in which the executive and the legislature are fused — such an arrangement would make perfect sense. Within the Madisonian system, however, it is little short of preposterous — especially when one considers that the legislature is accorded no opportunity whatsoever to push back. Explaining his decision to abolish the practice in 1801, President Thomas Jefferson contended that the new country should not tolerate a pageant so similar in nature to the British Speech from the Throne, and announced instead that he would be fulfilling his constitutional duties in writing. Hoping to forestall what he would later describe bitterly as the “mimickry” of “royal forms and ceremonies,” Jefferson instead elected to forsake the “pompous cavalcade” and to eschew all of those “forms and ceremonies” that were “not at all in character with the simplicity of republican government.” Henceforth, Jefferson hoped, the report would be delivered on paper.
This reticence was both admirable and radical, serving not only as a rare example of a powerful man willingly limiting his own grandiosity — and as a salutary lesson in how the separation of powers should be regarded by all — but helping also to calibrate the political expectations of a people who remained unsure as to whether one could actually run a successful nation without putting a monarch or a Great Man at the helm. That the practice that Jefferson strangled was eventually resuscitated by that outspoken enemy of republican virtue, President Thomas Woodrow Wilson, should frankly worry anybody who is concerned about the maintenance of political balance in America. Champions of the legislature might be alarmed, too, to learn that, after the infinitely laudable Calvin Coolidge had reversed Wilson’s course, the spoken address was brought back once again by the most imperial of all America’s imperial presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The State of the Union, we might say, is a Jacksonian rather than a Jeffersonian game.
Increasingly, alas, it is an Obaman one, too. Since the practical consequences of his 2010 electoral “shellacking” became clear to him, the president has spent a good amount of his time mocking the legislature’s claims to power — and, in such instances as it has had the audacity to disagree with him, promising to ignore it completely. “If Congress won’t act,” Obama has threatened over and over again, “I will.” And yet, in spite of these provocations, large swaths of that same legislature are at present preparing to smile and to holler and to applaud their great leader — even, it can be guaranteed, when he is explaining to them how he intends to usurp their prerogatives. Last year, major players in both the Senate and House wrote letters to Obama in which they actively pleaded with him to make an end run around their institution. “What we want,” Luis Gutierrez confirmed spinelessly, is for the executive branch to forget Congress and to “act big, act bold, act broadly, and act soon.” A few short weeks later, the president did. What was Gutierrez’s reaction? Delight.