Down with the State of the Union

Transplanted here from 2012 (and perviously from 2008 and originally from 2006, with many comments from the the original and subsequent years; links may suffer from linkrot after all these years.)

Something over at PoliBlog reminded me of why I pay no attention to the State of the Union address: It’s a worst-of-both-worlds form of political communication: All the pomp of a Speech from the Throne without any of the give-and-take of Question Period.

Steven takes issue with Lewis Gould’s characterization, from an essay called Ban the Bombast!:

More like an acceptance speech at a national convention than a candid review of the nation’s situation at the outset of a new year, the State of the Union has evolved into a semi-imperial speech from the throne.

Steven suggests that Gould’s “throne” characterization implies the president always get what he wants. Rather, for me, the reference reminds me precisely of what is wrong with the State of the Union address: It is not like a real throne speech at all.

“Speech from the throne” is the term used (with certain variations) in Westminister parliamentary systems. The head of state reads a statement about what “my government…” will do in the coming year. Then once it, and the dignity of the Queen (or her representative in Canada and other Commonwealth Realms) pretending that the government speaks for everyone, is over, things go back to normal. And that normal involves the head of government being hissed and booed and subjected to harsh questions in parliament.

In this respect, the State of the Union is really the worst of both worlds. The head of state stands before the people’s representatives (oh, and the senators, too) and delivers something allegedly about the nation as a whole. But then, as head of government–and therefore a partisan leader–he (i.e. the same person, unlike in Westminster systems) never sticks around to answer tough questions and subject himself to ridicule for the absurdities he has just mouthed. Instead, the opposition has to send someone to a TV/radio studio to give an equally absurd speech that hardly anyone listens to, and thus an opportunity for the sides to engage each other when people actually are paying attention is squandered.

I say dump the whole thing and in its place:

    • (1) go back to the head of state being kept off the floor of the separate legislative body and instead have him send a written message to congress


(2) have the head of government stick around after presenting his plans and spin and make him take questions–preferably weekly, as in Canada and the UK.

That is, keep true to the separation of powers by dumping the image of dignity and superiority that its one-way communication from the “throne” of Congress implies, or make the President jostle and spar with the very same representatives of the people he’s speaking before.

35 thoughts on “Down with the State of the Union

  1. Not to mention that most of the proposals discussed during the speech never make it through Congress or are drastically modified. Now Mr. President, what happened to the Mars project you brought in the SOTU two or three years ago???

  2. Pingback: PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts

  3. On KGO radio this morning, Sam Donaldson said the only honest SOTU address he has ever heard was when Gerald Ford said the State of the Union was “not good.”

  4. As I type this, John Howard, the Australian prime minister, is being interviewed on TV by a journalist who takes no prisoners. John Howard regularly appears on this program, as do many Australian politicians. He also takes the heat every question time in parliament, as do his ministers. The same applies to other PMs from other parties, and to premiers at the state level. This is one advantage of the Westminster system over the presidential system that applies in the US. I think democracy is so much healthier when the top man is subject to regular scrutiny. There is a downside in the rowdiness of parliament, but it certainly makes our leaders accountable.

    This leads to another point that has intrigued me about the US. The interview has just finished and the interviewer has said, “John Howard, thank you for joining us.” Would any American interviewer dare say, “George Bush, thank you for joining us”? Our former PM, Malcolm Fraser, was interviewed on radio last year. The interviewer called him “Malcolm”, as did his gardener on another interview. I think the script-writers for The West Wing should work for a discount, given how much of the script is “Yes, Mr President”, “No, Mr President”, “Thank you, Mr President” – even when the president is the one who should be doing the thanking. Even ex-presidents get called “Mr President”.

    Let me give another unusual example. An Australian director was at the Lodge when Paul Keating was the PM. He asked to use the phone to get a taxi to the airport. Paul Keating said not to bother, as he would drive him, so he did. I don’t mean the equivalent of a presidential convoy was called up. I mean Paul Keating got behind the wheel of his car and drove the guy to the airport.

    While I’m digressing, there is a story that I cannot confirm that some 60 years ago, a woman in Canberra rang her butcher to order her meat and got Ben Chifley, the prime minister, by mistake. He took the order down and made sure it was delivered. Australia’s wartime PM, John Curtin, didn’t live in the Lodge when in Canberra, but in a hotel – no presidential suite – he had to walk down the hallway to the bathroom.

    The office of the leader, whether a president or prime minister, needs respect, but the US system seems to go overboard – and I wonder if it is a consequence of the War of Independence being in the eighteenth century and the president thus being seen as an elected monarch or of the fact that the president is also the commander-in-chief and thus has a military role that does not apply to a prime minister under the Westminster system.

  5. South Africa and Botswana have parliamentary systems where the Prime Minister is called President. South Africa has a President that is elected by parliament and the roles of head of state and head of government are fused as in the U.S, but it is parliamentary as the government can loose votes of confidence. I don’t know if the above is true about Botswana or how Botswana does it. I know it has a President that is elected by Parliament. Is this a good design?

    Could Latin American countries copy South Africa and Botswana’s design of the President being elected by parliament? It would probaly be a hard sell.

  6. The alternative to the South Africa / Botswana model is keeping the Head of state apart from the Head of government – as is the case in the Republic of Ireland. I’m not sure what happens with the “Speech from the throne” there, but I think the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) must deliver a speech as the Irish President is barred by the Irish Constitution from addressing the Dail (the Irish parliament).

  7. Congress could probably improve the situation by adopting a version of the Address-in-Reply. It would be a technique for Congress actually looking at the proposals and defining a program for its own work. It’s rare now, because most Westminster systems apart from Canada produce predictable majorities in parliament, but a motion rejecting the address-in-reply was once the standard procedure for testing if a government had the confidence of a new house.

  8. The quasi-monarchical way in which the dual head of state/head of government is treated in the USA could almost be said to pale in comparison to the situation in Latin America. There, presidents have the “sash” of office and often live in official residences called the presidential palace.

    I had not thought about it before, but the prime ministerial residence being a mere “Lodge” or “No. 10 Downing Street” (like any normal house) is another means by which to signal the less than exalted status of the office, compared to living in a “palace” or even The White House.

  9. Yes, the Botswana system is similar to the South African: “President” is really a prime minister, but unlike prime ministers in most parliamentary systems, also serves as head of state. It’s not a bad model, though for various reasons I doubt it would be viable in Latin America today. It is well worth noting that Madison’s Virginia Plan fused the roles of head of state and government, but had the head elected by congress.

    The other alternative in a republic (i.e. non-monarchy) is to separate the elected head of state and parliamentary-dependent head of government, Lewis notes. This can be done with an almost purely figurehead president (as in Ireland) or in a semi-presidential format (with varying degrees of actual executive power in the hands of the president).

  10. It’s a bit over-the-top to describe my contribution as excellent, but I am encouraged to make another one.

    This morning’s Melbourne Age reports that George Bush got 14 minutes of applause for his State of the Union address (Dana Milbank, “Political seesaw charts the mood of the nation”, 25/1/2007). I doubt if all the Australian prime ministers have received a total of 14 minutes of applause from parliament since Federation.

    John Howard doesn’t even live in the official Canberra residence, the Lodge. He prefers to live in the Sydney residence, Kirribilli House. Our state premiers do not have official residences. They just go to work each day like the rest of us. Our state governors, who are figureheads, do have official residences, except in New South Wales.

    Our politicians do seem more accessible. John Howard goes for a morning walk. On his birthday last year, he was walking along the Yarra River, when some secondary students saw him. One rushed up and gave him a hug. Does this happen to George Bush?

    I see the Australian parliamentary system as superior in lots of ways. I understand that the USA, which spends a higher percentage of its GDP on health than Australia for worst results, does not even have a national health scheme. Bill Clinton promised one, but even though he won the election he could not get it through Congress. The US also has a minimum wage set by Congress at $US5.15 per hour many years ago, which, if the Democrat-controlled Congress votes to increase, the president can veto. Australia’s minimum wage is set by an independent authority at $A13.47 an hour, or about $US10.50 an hour. That’s double the living standard for the poorest workers in Australia. In the parliamentary system, the government can usually carry out its promises. It may have to compromise with the Senate, which being elected by proportional representation is in fact more representative of the people than the House of Representatives, but the basic promise will usually be fulfilled. If the government does not want to compromise, it can call a double dissolution and, if the Senate still does not co-operate, have a joint sitting. In essence, there is a closer correspondence between the executive and the legislature. This is balanced by the independence of the High Court, a Senate in which it is rare to have a government majority and a (weak) federal system, in which currently every state and territory has a Labor government, all of them re-elected at least once, while the Commonwealth has a Liberal government.

    Australia had the advantage of no War of Independence. Self-government evolved in the colonies and they federated in 1901. There were elected conventions to write the constitution. Cardinal Moran even stood, but was defeated. I don’t know how often cardinals contest elections. Australia is the first nation to be formed by a vote of its people. (Despite the myths to the contrary, Aborigines voted in that referendum and for the first parliament, though restrictions were put on their voting rights afterwards.) Australia is also the first nation whose foundation was filmed. The Salvation Army got the contract!

  11. C/f also Canada’s “24 Sussex Drive”. Took me ages to work out that’s where the Prime Minister lives. Probably even longer to work out s/he wasn’t the “President” of Canada. [*]

    The “New Republic” magazine (TNR), circa 1989-90, noted that the US Congress is “playing Hamlet without the Prince” by debating the Administration’s policies when the main culprit thereof is absent. I suppose underlings (up to Cabinet level) do get grilled by Congressional committees, especially at their confirmation hearings, and this can be interesting, but apart from an impeachment trial once a century, the plenary sessions themselves are reckoned (by most US and outside observers) to be consistently dull to the point of soporific.

    I wonder if one way to entice the President or his flunkies into the “bearpit” (as they call the NSW Parliament) is to give them a vote there – exercisable by the Prez or most senior Cabinet official (in line of succession, including foreign-born this time) present – on condition they answer Questions Without Notice first. Having a vote does lure the VP into the Senate – although the VP has nothing else to fill up h/her days but perusing the President’s cardiographic charts, whereas the Pres is busy throwing the first baseball, puking sushi, interviewing interns, etc, etc.

    IIRC, the brief-lived Confederate Constitution did give Cabinet officers a “voice” in either House, although given 19th-century usage I’m not sure if this meant voting rights, or merely speaking rights.

    [*] You would be amazed at how many Australians – including University educated – think Canada is a republic. Probably because no Union Jack on the flag, unlike Australia. At the 1999 republic referendum, I met a few who said “It’s okay to remove the Monarchy, because Canada already has”. There’s also quite a few Australians who wouldn’t mind replacing the Queen with a President, but won’t let you touch the Union Jack on the Aussie flag unless you pry the flag from their cold, dead hands. Very odd, from a constitutional/ legal point of view. I label ’em “Hawaiian republicans”.

  12. Having said that, one vote out of 435 in the House is worth only 22% of one (or one-half) vote out of 100 in the Senate, so the game might not be worth the candle.

    Maybe make it “1% [rounded up] of the number of seats in that chamber” – ie, the 5 most senior executive branch officials present in the House get to vote.

    I have some idea (perhaps prompted by the recent death of Suharto) that Indonesia before the 1998-2003 reforms had some similar arrangement.

    If it were up to me (which, of course, it never is) to design a presidential system, I’d consider laying down that that Cabinet Ministers must be appointed from the Legislature… but, at the same time, the President (directly elected by overall majority) can appoint up to 1% of the members of either House.

    This would mean –

    (a) either elected candidates, or non-candidates, could serve in Cabinet

    (b) but if the Pres dismisses a Minister who wasn’t elected an MP, the latter doesn’t simply fade into private life (a la Stockman, O’Neill, DiIulio, et al) to write cantankerous memoirs – instead s/he remains an MP, on the backbenches, where s/he can make trouble for the President (a la Edward St John QC, or Paul Keating in mid-1991)

    (c) in addition, there’s a (slight) guarantee of overall majority rule, so the legislative majority can’t ensure itself a self-perpetuating majority by gerrymandering its own districts.

  13. Seeing Gov Kathleen Sibelius delivering what passes for an Address-in-Reply (yes, that made Australian TV news, at least on SBS, our equivalent of PBS) reminded me that the US does have a tradition of giving the opposition party a televised right of reply to SOTU.

    The problem is, the USA has no “Opposition Leader” – at least, not one who’s guaranteed (okay, okay, Simon Crean, “likely”) to lead the “Out” party into the next election. Sibelius may be the senior – or the most telegenic (?) – Dem Governor, but no one imagines she’ll be the 2008 (or even 2012) presidential candidate. Some of the highest-profile Governors (Granholm and Schwarzenegger) are constitutionally barred.

    The Congressional floor leaders are also unlikely to be the next presidential nominees: LBJ and Gerald Ford were flukes, and Gephardt’s presidential ambitions repeatedly got nowhere. Dole’s got only slightly further.

    I recall once reading a book, “Time-Life” style, that showed 1960s Senate GOP leader Everett Dirksen and his House counterpart forlornly facing the TV cameras for their reply to LBJ’s SOTU – the press nicknamed these “The Ev and [whatever the GOP House leader’s name was] Show” and noted their extremely low ratings.

    One thing that does surprise me, as a Westminster subject, is the deference shown to the President as head of state – or, more commonly, as “Commander in Chief” – by voters who detest him politically. I saw a letter in, IIRC, “Commentary” or “The American Spectator” c 1993-94 where Reverend something from some Dixie State was chiding the editors for daring to mock Clinton. I didn’t vote for him, said the Rev, but he is our President now, and must be given respect. I can certify that no one whose head of govt is a Prime Minister feels any such compunction against giving that dignitary what-for.

  14. Gov Sebelius [*] is chair-emeritus of the Democratic Governors Association,[**] which may explain why she was picked. The news reports of her speech indicate that she (a) called for bipartisan cooperation over a budget stimulus, but (b) annoyed the Clinton supporters by endorsing Obama. Not peace but a sword!

    I suppose one advantage of a very long drawn-out primary season – with the first shots fired in early January, and with Super Tuesday a month later – is that both parties will usually have their presidential candidates known for seven or eight months before the general election, so there’ll be an official “opposition leader” in place for about one-sixth of the total four-year executive term. As opposed to the French runoff system, where they only have two weeks to know whether the final showdown will be Gaullist vs Socialist, Gaullist vs centre-right, centre-right vs Socialist, or (in 2002) Gaullist vs Front National.

    I guess with fixed terms, there’s much less need to have an “opposition leader” in place for the other three years. Besides – as Bob Hawke can attest – there are definite advantages sometimes when a party doesn’t finalise its leader until very close to election day. (And, as the Dems found in 2004, definite disadvantages when you choose your standard-bearer early and then have no way to replace them, eg by a vote of the caucus.)

    [*] Re my misspelling – Google gives me 213,000 hits for “Kathleen Sebelius” – incl Wikipedia and her homepage – against 72,400 for “Kathleen Sibelius”, so I’m not the only one who was thrown off by “Finlandia”!]

    [**] Which means, if Hillary wins and Pelosi stays, Harry Reid will be the only male among the four most senior Dems [insert Mormon joke].

  15. I think Gov. Sebelius’s selection was tactical not institutional. Obama’s success, including Kennedy’s endorsement of him, in the ongoing primary campaign suggests that partisan rancor is out of favor this week (what with a stimulus package to pass and all). So a pleasant if soporific speaker, who has never offended anyone, was asked to go on TV and say nothing. Rest assured that the dogs of war are ready whenever the leaders cry “Havoc!” Last night just wasn’t the night.

  16. On the other hand, if the USA does copy question time, certain more recent, ah, practices, should not cross the Pacific…

    “Debate has erupted over the use of hi-tech mobile phones in State Parliament after Transport Minister Rachel Nolan relied on advice from her telephone to answer a question from the Opposition…”

    – Rosemary Odgers, “Opposition outrage as Rachel Nolan uses mobile phone in parliament,” The Courier-Mail (24 March 2010).

    Re ordinary folk bailing up the head of government while out and about walking… To be fair, the USA has a national fear – not at all unfounded – of lone nuts trying to assassinate the president. No one in Australia has ever tried to assassinate a Prime Minister or Premier, that I know of. The closest incidents are comical rather than sinister – Capt de Groot in 1932, Bob Hawke exclaiming “Jesus Christ!” and ducking under the table when a light bulb exploded (1985, I think). Apart from John Newman, a NSW MLA with some colourful links, no Australian politician has been assassinated in recent decades, to my memory. (Over TJ Ley we will draw a decent veil). Closest was Harold Holt who vanished while swimming.

    Mind you, Sweden too had a good record but then lost two MPs (Olaf Palme and Anna Lindh) since 1986.

  17. I missed this thread the first time around.

    The President of the U.S. used to send Congress the SOTU in writing, and it was Woodrow Wilson, among many other catastrophes associated with that administration, who introduced the bad practice of turning it into a speech from the throne.

    As for how to undo the damage, I think its too much of a tool of governance in the U.S. to get rid of. At the most it can be deemphasized. Here are a few suggestions that an unusually conscientious and constitutional-minded President, House majority, and non-presidential party semi-realistically could do if they wanted:

    1. The President still sends Congress a written copy of the speech, and could attach to the written copy a report, available online, on the actual state of the Union, based on the current Economic Report of the President (which itself is closer to what the framers seemed to have in mind to the SOTU). Then the first part of the speech would be a sober summary of this report, the next part would set out what the administration planned to do in areas where it didn’t require Congressional approval, and the third would set out the legislative program. The showmanship would be dialed down considerably from where it is now.

    2. Technically, either House of Congress could disinvite the President. More realistically, the House of Representatives should start building up machinery to allow it to produce its own governing program. Its part of the way there already with the Budget Committee and the various study groups attached to the Caucasus. But there should be some sort of “committee of committee chairs”, and a actual policy committee made up of younger members, drawn evenly from the current committees. In both cases the rules would allow the majority and minority members to use committee facilities to meet separately. And it could take more of the budget process away from the White House. Under the current setup Congress is completely dependent on the executive branch, both for facts and direction, to make policy with no corresponding control over the makeup of the executive branch.

    3. Parties should start selecting their nominees for the next presidential election within six months of the inauguration of the president. The could just assemble the previous year’s convention and have the delegates choose the nominee. Then four years later the party members would asked, in an up or down ballot, if the nominee should continue to be the nominee or be dumped, if he is dumped the ensuing convention would have to come up with someone else. This would give the U.S. a real leader of the opposition, while still providing a mechanism to remove duds. And the presidential nominee selection process is being pushed earlier this cycle anyway.

    That said, I’d prefer a parliamentary system, but these are three small steps not only in that direction, but more towards what the framers seem to have intended (they didn’t envisage the same sort of presidential system the U.S. has become, their model seems to have been eighteenth century Britain).

    I’m curious if Latin American Presidents also give a sort of speech from the throne to their congresses.

    • Oh, dear. Start picking the nominees as soon as the new president is sworn in? Oh, please, no.

      I think most Latin American systems have a similar institution to the US State of the Union. And, like the US, none has any position like “Leader of the Opposition”. It is a concept that just does not fit presidentialism, which is just one more reason to prefer parliamentarism, indeed.

      Semi-presidential systems (or at least those with two-bloc party systems) have something like a leader of the opposition, in that the role is filled by whoever leads the parliamentary opposition, or else by the premier in the case of cohabitation.

  18. Considering the amount of time it took the Democrats in 2007-8, and the Republicans now, perhaps its not *such* a bad suggestion!

  19. In South Africa the president gives a State of the Nation Address, but it is followed by actual debate.

    After the State of the Nation Address is delivered, it is debated by the two Houses of Parliament. Political parties have an opportunity to give their opinions and raise questions on matters addressed in the speech. Issues of concern are raised and areas of critical importance to the nation are highlighted. The public is invited to attend and observe this debate as is the case with all sessions of Parliament. In turn, the President responds to the points raised and questions arising from the debate.

  20. I remember that the one good idea of the McCain campaign (and possibly its only idea as I cannot think of any others) was to have a President’s Question Time of some sort. I believe the idea was shot down by his own party on “separation of powers” grounds. That sounded to me very much like code for “If we get another guy like Bush, we would never survive Question Time.”

    While a weekly session may weaken the presidency somewhat (how is that a bad thing?), I see no reason why Congress cannot grill the president from time to time om important issues.

  21. Lincoln appeared before congressional committees a couple of times. The constitution did not collapse.

    The things that people expect to destroy the constitution can be quite strange. I have been reading up on the Canadian prorogation thing and learned to my surprise that the Canadian constitution would collapse if governors published reasons for controversial decisions.

    There is of course no precedent for governors doing this in the Westminster system.

  22. Naturally, I skipped the speech and the Republican response (by a cranky Senator that Time magazine branded his party’s savior on last week’s cover).

    From snippets I’ve picked up on here and there I gather that the most important event of the evening was the Republican responder, Marco Rubio, having a drink of water during his speech.

    Evidently I did not miss much, as politicians drinking is not very interesting. Especially if it was indeed just water.

  23. Looking through the comments, it occured to me, how was the response to the SOTU delivered before TV and radio, or is the idea of a response an innovation of the Wireless Age?

    • I know early presidents simply sent a written message, but I don’t know who the last president to submit in writing was. The constitution says only that the President shall “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union”; that is, nothing about the mode of information-giving.

      Note that it also does not say “annually”; he can provide such information any time. So another question I don’t know the answer to is, when did it become established that there was a single annual event called The State of the Union? (Of course, presidents continue to address congress “from time to time” outside of this formalized annual ritual.)

  24. If the President doesn’t do a State of the Union speech, should the speaker of the house do it?

  25. Any member of Congress could give his version of the state of the union (it would be easier in the Senate where there’s no time limit), as could any other person who can get media attention-see Rand Paul’s ‘Tea Party response’. Only the President is constitutionally required to inform Congress of the state of the union, though there’s no requirement it be in person or annually. The Speaker could choose to do so, eitger on the floor or as a GOP response, but he’d be lampooned if he purported to speak on behalf of the country.

    John McCain said he’d introduce president v. Congress question yime if elected in 2008; while many liked the idea, the logistics of arranging it, particularly with our separation of powers and lack of presidential floor privileges in Congress.

    As for 4 above, it’s not just the US. In the UK, the PM is usually addressed as ‘Prime Minister,’ and other ministers as ‘Minister’ or ‘Secy of State.’

    It’s very uncommon for someone to be verbally addressed in the US by two names. It’s either just ‘John’ or else ‘Mr./Senator/Rep./Congressman Howard,’ though the last two are recent developments frowned upon by most guides to form and etiquette (US Reps are properly addressed as ‘Mr.’) The use of ‘Mr Title’ is very common, to the point that Romney called Ed Milliband ‘Mr Leader.’

    Traditionally, it was not correct to refer to ex presidents as ‘President Surname’ or to address them as ‘Mr President.’ Depending on the manual, the proper form was either ‘Mr Surname’ or by the highest previous title (eg ‘Gov Clinton,’ ‘Amb Bush.’) These customs are now so outdated that I got an audible gasp when I addressed Clinton as ‘Governor Clinton’ during a q&a session.

    So I think in this regard, it’s simply a reflection of Australia’s more laid back culture, and perhaps to the PM’s theoretical status as first amongst equals, than to any unnecessary pomp and circumstance by us gringos.

  26. @14 and @17, I’ve often felt the opposition would be much better off in the United States if there was an elected “Opposition Leader.” Certainly before midterm elections, the leaders of the minority parties in each house serve that role to an extent, particularly when one party is in control of both houses and the presidency. Nancy Pelosi in 2006 leading up to the election was probably the closest we’ve seen to that in recent years, though her profile was nowhere near that of a Leader of the Opposition in a Westminster country. I’m not sure how the parties pick who gives their official responses–it seems potential presidential candidates are the norm early in a president’s term, while especially in the election year, they try to pick high-profile figures who aren’t expected to pursue the nomination.

    I’ve often thought that a Leader of the Opposition, or even an elected Party Spokesman who is expected to run for office rather than being the equivalent of a press secretary, would help the Democrats build a higher public profile in Texas (where the party hasn’t won a statewide office since 1994, the longest current drought for either major party in the nation). There isn’t a single high-profile candidate for any of the statewide offices coming up in 2014. Of course, our primary system would make an elected “party leader” have to stand against potential challengers to run for an office, and under state law, the party can’t hold its primary for governor two years early, as leadership conventions (which have essentially become open primaries in Canada) are held in parliamentary democracies.

    As far as Latin American ‘speeches from the throne,’ it depends on the country. They certainly happen in Venezuela (with certain opposition congresistas interrupting Chávez during his speeches: I know in many Latin countries, the president uses the power of the ‘cadena nacional’ (a mandatory broadcast which all television and radio stations must carry) to address the nation, most of which are not before the Congress.

    In Panama, the primaries are in March 2013 for May 2014 general elections. Of the two opposition parties, one’s candidate has been all but decided since the last election in 2009 (the Vice President, but now frozen since a split in the ruling coalition in 2011), and the other’s presumptive nominee has been the only prominent candidate since October (so over a year and a half before the election). Of course, since their presidents can’t run for direct reelection (they must sit out 10 years), it’s not exactly comparable to an Opposition Leader campaigning against a sitting PM.

  27. > “leaders of the minority parties in each house”

    Chris, did you mean to say “leaders of the opposition/ non-presidential parties in each House” there?

  28. No, I meant to say minority party, meaning the party with fewer members in that chamber. The ‘minority’ party in a chamber is not always the non-presidential party, as is currently the case in the House of Representatives.

    The overall leader of the House of Representatives is the Speaker, which is a partisan position who controls the agenda of the House, a vastly different role than a Westminster speaker. The ‘House Majority Leader’ is the deputy leader of the largest caucus in the House of Representatives (as that party’s leader is the Speaker), and is currently a Republican. The ‘House Minority Leader’ is the leader of the smaller caucus in the House of Representatives, and is currently a Democrat. The current holder of that office, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, styles herself ‘House Democratic Leader,’ rather than ‘House Minority Leader,’ but as far as I’m aware the position is still called ‘House Minority Leader’ in the House rules.

    The nominal leader of the Senate is the Vice President, but for the past two centuries VPs have only presided for ceremonial occasions (such as the state of the union, and the counting of electoral votes) and to break ties. The official leader after the VP is the President Pro Tempore, but this is an honorary position given to the longest-serving member of the majority party. The actual leader of the Senate is the ‘Majority Leader,’ who is the leader of the largest caucus in the Senate, and is currently a Democrat. The ‘Senate Minority Leader’ is the leader of the smaller caucus, and is currently a Republican.

    The closest things the GOP have to ‘opposition leaders’ right now, apart from the media-appointed ‘saviors,’ are the Speaker and the Senate Minority Leader. However, these offices in general are not the ‘front men’ for the campaigns–they’re much more localized. John Boehner, in particular, is not a particularly charming man on camera, and has major problems keeping his party whipped. Nancy Pelosi, on the other hand, campaigns all across the country (one reason she rose to be the party leader), was a big part in the Democratic wave of 2006, and was one of the main ‘boogeymen’ (aside from President Obama and the specter of socialist ‘Obamacare’) the GOP, and in particular the Tea Party movement, used in their successful 2010 campaign.

    If Hillary Clinton decides not to run for president, I would be very surprised if Pelosi doesn’t throw her hat in the ring, though I suppose we’re at least two years ahead of ourselves in that speculation.

  29. Pingback: Steven Taylor, Outside the Beltway

  30. More criticisms of SOTU, from Left and Right:

    Left corner:

    If Congress won’t eliminate the spectacle, then perhaps they should consider an alternative that would at least restore the intent of Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution. Instead of a speech, Congress should invite the President to a debate covering the State of the Union, and whatever agenda the President sees fit to champion at it. […]

    Congress could re-establish its coequal dignity by inviting the President to a debate. Instead of the normal two-way division of time, the presider could offer a three-way split, with the President and both parties getting equal time. The President might get 10 minutes to discuss an agenda item – in this case, let’s use gun control. Then the party managers would each get 10 minutes to divide as they see fit to question the President and give him the option to answer. The same 30-minute commitment could be made for other issues – as many as a President wants to debate, or as few.

    This could have many salutary benefits. First, it would remind both branches of their equal status and responsibilities under the Constitution. That would restore the actual purpose of the State of the Union. It would also transform the SOTU event from a one-sided lecture to an informative exchange, which might tend to engage voters rather than repel them. It would allow for a much fairer airing of issues, and perhaps even occasionally spark moments of agreement. It would also eliminate the need for the clunky “response speech” that has routinely been even more pointless than the State of the Union speech itself.

    Edward Morrissey, “The State of the Union has become a parody of monarchical excess. There’s a better way.” The Week (12 January 2016). URL:

    Right corner: Mark Steyn.

    Strange how the monarchical urge persists even in a republic two-and-a-third centuries old. Many commentators have pointed out that the modern State of the Union is in fairly obvious mimicry of the Speech from the Throne that precedes a new legislative session in British Commonwealth countries and continental monarchies, but this is to miss the key difference. When the Queen or her viceroy reads a Throne Speech in Westminster, Ottawa, or Canberra, it’s usually the work of a Government with a Parliamentary majority: In other words, the stuff she’s announcing is actually going to happen. That’s why, lest any enthusiasm for this or that legislative proposal be detected, the apolitical Monarch overcompensates by reading everything in as flat and inexpressive a monotone as possible. Underneath the ancient rituals – the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod getting the door of the House of Commons slammed in his face three times – it’s actually a very workmanlike affair.

    The State of the Union is the opposite. The President gives a performance, […] And at the end of the speech, nothing gets done, and nothing gets fixed, and, after a few days’ shadowboxing between admirers and detractors willing to pretend it’s some sort of serious legislative agenda, every single word of it is forgotten until the next one.

    Mark Steyn, “The State of the State of the Union,” SteynOnline (12 January 2016). URL:

  31. “… I am not saying ditch the response altogether. It’s totally free airtime on every network. Of course opposition party will always take it, even if they never do anything worthwhile with it. But there’s no reason to continue doing it one particular way.

    The parties have played with the format in the past, with limited success…. In the early days of the response (a tradition that only dates back to the 1960s), members of Congress tried press conferences, sit-down interviews with news anchors, and even, in 1972, an hour-long call-in show in which nearly a dozen Democratic lawmakers took unrehearsed calls from voters.

    But what we have all apparently forgotten is that there’s absolutely no reason to do it live, and for years, it wasn’t…”

    — Alex Pareene. “Stop Doing the State of the Union Response Live”

    Splinter (30 January 2018)

  32. Pingback: The SOTU Folderol

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