Article II of the Constitution dictates few specific responsibilities to the president. Among them is the requirement to deliver the State of the Union to Congress. Thomas Jefferson disliked it because it reminded him of the British monarch’s annual State Opening of Parliament. He reduced it to a written report, which it remained until 1913. Although Woodrow Wilson rekindled the practice of coming to the Capitol to make the address, it has remained largely a mundane annual recitation of the president’s legislative agenda or plans for the year ahead.
President Obama’s final State of the Union was different. At times eloquent and inspirational, he addressed the nation about the state of our democracy itself. Beginning with the words from the Constitution, “We the people,” he focused on the poisonous extreme partisan polarization which so characterizes the nation’s current political environment. He warned that the bright future he sees for America can “only happen if we fix our politics.” He focused on the importance of moderation, negotiation, and compromise to the health of a democratic system, arguing that it requires “basic bonds of trust between its citizens.”
He decried the demonization of the political opposition so common in recent years not only in Congress, but in the media and the election process itself. He declared that our democracy will not work “if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic.”
Remarkably, this president, who came to office seven years ago acclaimed as the “post-partisan president,” took a full share of the blame revealing, “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide…”.
It would be naive to believe that this one speech, or this president – now a lame duck operating in a presidential election year – will dent that political polarization for more than a moment in time. But he’s right when he lays the principal responsibility for changing the environment on the electorate itself. His message to all Americans was that whatever they may believe, whether they “prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on [Americans’] willingness to uphold [their] obligations as a citizen.” This doesn’t take politicians off the hook, but does recognize that left to the pressures and incentives of today’s political life, they will never effectively change it.
Presidents have fallen into the practice of telling the Congress that the state of the union is “strong.” Carter seemed to prefer “sound.” My favorite, for its frankness, was Gerald Ford’s declaration in 1975 that “the state of the union is not good.” Obama even managed to infuse new meaning by delivering the line as the aspiration climax of an excellent address, this time delivered more to the American people than to Congress, “[America is] optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. Because of you. I believe in you. That’s why I stand here as confident as I have ever been that the State of our Union is strong.”