As according to custom, the president (LOL) has been invited to address Congress tomorrow on “the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” There are lots of ruminations and predictions going about as to what the speech will contain, what themes will be prevalent, and what initiatives will be unveiled.
I predict that it’s going to be long, boring and utterly ineffectual.
Arguably the greatest State of the Union address to date is President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 installment (he, uh, had a few), which is usually simply called the “Four Freedoms” speech. It was 37 minutes long. I just read it in less than ten minutes. In contrast, President Obama’s 2013 speech was over an hour long.
FDR’s address first opened with a report of the war that had been destroying Europe (remember, Pearl Harbor wouldn’t happen yet for another 11 months), and describing how dangerous that war had become to the U.S. At the time, the only involvement the U.S. had was selling ships and planes to our allies, but we weren’t building them fast enough. The only proposal: we need to build them faster.
Let us say to the democracies: “We Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom. We are putting forth our energies, our resources, and our organizing powers to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free world. We shall send you in ever-increasing numbers, ships, planes, tanks, guns. That is our purpose and our pledge.”
Later, in probably the greatest segue between foreign and domestic policy, FDR says:
Certainly this is no time for any of us to stop thinking about the social and economic problems which are the root cause of the social revolution which is today a supreme factor in the world. For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy.
Boom. Finally, the theme of the whole speech, laid out bare:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.
And that’s it. No policy proposals. No laundry list of new initiatives or proposals or reforms. Just a statement on the state of the world and how it affects the Union, followed by a strong affirmation of democratic U.S. values. And would be impossible to miss it, because it was only a half-hour long.
Unfortunately, the yearly address has become less a report on where the Union stands and has drifted to a long, long list of initiatives and policies the administration wants to highlight. In this, it’s become relatively ineffective at highlighting any. And forget that while the president is standing at the lectern, he’ll be facing one of the most recalcitrant congresses in U.S. history (but really just the House of Representatives, and really just one faction of said House) .
For example, last year in his address, President Obama called for:
- raising the minimum wage
- urban manufacturing centers
- money to rebuild infrastructure
- a bipartisan commission to reform the voting system
- universal preschool
- gun control
- reforms to Medicare
- immigration reform
- action on climate change
- creation of an Energy Security Trust
- passing a budget “without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors” (LOL).
And that was just the domestic portion of the speech. Not one item on that list was accomplished (well, I guess the last item was just accomplished). Hell, I doubt anybody remembered a week later half of those proposals.
Once again, this year, we’ll probably hear a similar listing of proposals and initiatives, and it will be just as pointless. The president would be wise to take a walk back to 1941.