By George Will
In the 12 months we have to steel ourselves for the next State of the Union spectacle, let us count the ways that this spawn of democratic Caesarism – presidency-worship – has become grotesque. It would be the most embarrassing ceremony in the nation’s civic liturgy were the nation still capable of being embarrassed by its puerile faith in presidential magic.
The Constitution laconically requires only that 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.” Nothing requires “from time to time” to be construed as “every damn year.” And must we be annually reminded that all presidents think that everything they want is “necessary and expedient”?
Some of the blame for this yearly night of nonsense goes to Ronald Reagan. Most, however, goes to Woodrow Wilson. Reagan, who loved entertainment, pioneered the regrettable practice of stocking the House gallery with (usually) admirable people. Wilson, who loved himself, had, as professors often do, a theory, which caused him to reverse Thomas Jefferson’s wholesome reticence. When the Founding generation was developing customs and manners, George Washington and John Adams made the mistake of going to Congress to do their constitutional duty. Jefferson, however, disliked the sound of his voice and considered it monarchical for the executive to lecture the legislature. So he sent written thoughts to Capitol Hill, a practice good enough until Wilson in 1913.
It is beyond unseemly, it is anti-constitutional for senior military officers and, even worse, Supreme Court justices, to attend these political rallies where, with metronomic regularity, legislators of the president’s party leap to their feet to whinny approval.
First, Obama’s declaration that nothing in his long list of proposed spending “should” – should? – “increase our deficit by a single dime” means there should be commensurate tax increases. Second, now that he has proclaimed that government “must keep the promises we’ve already made,” only the uneducable can still believe he will consider entitlement reforms. Third, by saying spending cuts under the sequester would be “harsh” and would “devastate” domestic programs, he made applesauce of those two words: The cuts would remove only $85 billion from this year’s almost $3.6 trillion budget, and over a decade they would cut just $1.2 trillion from projected spending of $46 trillion.
Although Obama is a self-proclaimed respecter of science, he does not stoop to empiricism. Understandably. Measured by “accumulated cyclone energy,” hurricane and other tropical cyclone activity is at a three-decade low, and Nature journal reports that globally “there has been little change in drought over the past 60 years.”
Wilson’s stroke prevented him from delivering the speech orally in 1919 and 1920, but Warren Harding, not known for a strong sense of propriety, continued the deplorable practice in 1921 and 1922. Calvin Coolidge did so in 1923, four months after becoming president, but not a second time.
State of the Union addresses are now integral to the apotheosis of the presidency. If government is going to be omniprovident, modern presidents are going to be omnipresent, and politics is going to be infantile.
George Will’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.