The enigma, and perhaps impetus, of swelling executive power is that when constitutionally asserted, the presidency is shrinking. Witness the White House’s apparent intent to use the State of the Union address to propose that—wait for it—Congress enact national standards regarding how quickly companies must inform customers of data breaches.
Now, hacking is bad and reporting it is good. But it is also time—and the constitutional conservative should reach this conclusion with due reluctance—to abolish the State of the Union address, whose most pernicious effect is its political imperative for the President to propose as many new ideas as possible, regardless of the need for them, while Congress occupies a supine posture of reaction.
Article II of the Constitution requires simply that the President “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.” There has not been a President since Woodrow Wilson, perhaps excepting Eisenhower, who has not daily complied with this requirement by breakfast. If anything, modern Presidents ought to view its opening phrase—“from time to time”—as a limit rather than a license.
The spectacle of complying with this provision on a particular occasion, with all the pageantry of an 18th century Throne Speech, has come to require the manufacture of proposals for their own sake, without calibration to need. The State of the Union is now all recommending and no reporting. The significance of these recommendations has been dwindling for years. (Clinton: school uniforms. Bush II: producing ethanol with wood chips.) In turn, the smaller these get, the harder it becomes for the public to police them. For its part, Congress is constrained either to sit in rapturous attention punctuated by huzzahs or to be caught on camera appearing ungracious.
The only thing worse than proposing the picayune is when Presidents get it in their heads to go big, as in the White House’s reported intention to seek $320 billion in new taxes in what seems like a straight income transfer. But what appears grandiose when condensed to headlines turns out not to be so vast when spread, as this proposal would be, over 10 years, over which time it would constitute less than two-tenths of a percent of the U.S. economy. Both parties share an interest in exaggerating the size of what is actually a relatively modest idea.
And this is the pattern. Given the relentlessness of the State of the Union’s demand for something, anything, novel, Presidents will resort to the small—school uniforms, wood chips, hackers—absent an appetite or imperative for the significant. This is evidence of how extensively Progressivism has gripped both parties’ views of the executive branch. We are all Wilsonians now. Wilson rejected the notion of a Constitutional regime of balance, proposing that politics was Darwinian instead. The President was thus to be a permanent agent of Progress, propelling forward motion.
Of course, in the absence of forward motion, any motion will do. Journalists—who, like cats, are obsessed with movement—are suckers for this. They rarely cover, and the political system seldom registers, prudent governance. The State of the Union spectacle actively discourages it. It is obligatory for these addresses to assert that the state of the union is magnificent, and equally obligatory for them to repudiate the conclusion that ought to follow, which is conservation. No President—not even popular executives serving second terms because of satisfaction with their firsts—will ever ascend the rostrum of the House and declare: “Things are good. I’m good. Good night.”
To be sure, circumstances might not call for that just now—hackers are out there prowling and all—but sometimes they do, and events like the State of the Union make prudence on those occasions virtually impossible to exercise, if only because the political system registers change alone.
Candidates who want to meet George F. Will’s challenge of ambling rather than running for President could start by pledging to pledge to end this annual spectacular. This, to be sure, seems unlikely. The Democratic Party helped birth the modern Presidency and now has a deep stake in maintaining on the domestic front powers molded for the foreign realm. For their part, of the leading Republican candidates, one last ran for President in response to his wife’s query as to whether he could “save America,” while another possible contender thinks the country is careening “off the cliff to oblivion.” These are not the makings of executive restraint.
But symbols matter, and the State of the Union address is a powerful one whose particular malignity consists in its requirement that Presidents propose something new whether the country needs it or not. As practiced, the address is inherently unconservative. By placing the Presidency at the center of political agency, it is becoming anti-constitutional. Abolishing this spectacle would help, in a symbolic and therefore significant way, to restore political and constitutional balance to the regime.