White House aides continue to try to torch the State of the Union address. Presidents keep getting in the way.

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WASHINGTON — From time to time, some intrepid White House speechwriters will wage a quiet battle to kill off the State of the Union address as we know it, or at least shrink it so that it is no longer the stylized piece of theater in which has become

Concerned that the annual address has become stale, presidential advisers over the years have tried to shake it up. They have considered removing it from the Capitol and moving it to the central states, shortening it by two-thirds, or sticking to a single issue. But inertia would always take hold. No president wants to forgo the pomp and ceremony, let alone the millions of eyes fixed on him, as he walks through the House chamber after the resounding eight-word sign: “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!”

The state of the union can be strong or getting stronger. But the state of state of the union ADDRESS it is immutable. It is not about change.

“It’s one of the largest audiences a president has,” said Kathleen Sebelius, a cabinet secretary in the Barack Obama administration. «With a captive audience and people tuning in at the same time, it’s an opportunity to get across themes and messages that are so important to setting a tone.»

Joe Biden’s speech on Tuesday night is expected to mirror in many ways all the speeches made by every president since Ronald Reagan perfected the formula in the 1980s. There will be all the old conventions: the call for guests at the Chamber of the Chamber, the self-congratulatory list of achievements, and the solemn promise to address what remains unfinished.

Lawmakers from the president’s party will stand up and applaud throughout, while the opposition party will largely stand still.

Nothing says that the leadership has to develop in this way. Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution simply states that the president «from time to time shall give to Congress information on the State of the Union and recommend for its consideration such measures as he deems necessary and expedient.»

In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson gave his report in person rather than in writing, reviving a tradition that had expired with John Adams in the 1800s. Not everyone was happy to see the return of the in-person model.

«I am sorry for this cheap and tasteless imitation of English royalty.»

Senator John Sharp Williams in 1913

“Sorry to see the old Federalist custom of throne speeches revived,” Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi sneered, as recounted in Arthur Schlesinger’s three-volume history of the State of the Union address. «I am sorry for this cheap and tasteless imitation of English royalty.»

Doubts about the speech only grew when it assumed its modern form, sparking something of a rebellion among the White House aides tasked with writing it every year.

In 1998, Jeff Shesol, a speechwriter in Bill Clinton’s White House, wrote an internal memo calling for a shorter, tighter speech that focused on an important idea.

Nobody listened.

“They basically patted me on the head and said, ‘You’re adorable,’” Shesol recalled.

If anything, the swelling got worse. Two years later, Clinton delivered a speech that lasted an hour and a half, the longest State of the Union address on record. At 9,000 words, Clinton’s speech was nine times longer than the first speech given by George Washington in 1790.

“Speech has been an increasingly bankrupt exercise for generations,” Shesol said. «It has felt increasingly routine, often excessively empty and removed from the reality of our national and political life.»

The audience has been declining. Biden’s first State of the Union address drew an audience of 38 million. On the contrary, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and Donald Trump he drew 45 million to 52 million to his maiden addresses.

The attendance of the Supreme Court magistrates, who are invited every year, has also been falling. Chief Justice John Roberts complained in 2010 that the speech had become a «pep rally.”

“I’m not sure why we’re there,” Roberts said.

Neither did his teammates. Four of the nine judges skipped the event last year.

One reason to scrap the speech in its current form is the heightened political polarization in American life, say former White House officials. Watching from home, Americans tend to view discourse along ideological lines that have been calcified. TO study in 2020 found that partisan divisions in the US had grown faster over the past four decades than in other large democracies, including the UK and Canada. In the late 1970s, a typical American rated his party 27 points higher than the other major party. By 2016, that number had risen to almost 46 points.

In these troubled times, it is simply unrealistic to believe that the president can deliver a national message that will soften such divisions and truly unify the nation, say veterans of past White Houses.

The speech «basically reinforces divisions within the country, rather than broadening support at home for what a president wants to do,» said Leon Panetta, White House chief of staff under Clinton and later a cabinet secretary in the administration. of Obama.

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