There is some debate over whether we should have a SOTU in the manner we have it. The formal address we see today was revived by Woodrow Wilson (it was dispensed with by Thomas Jefferson). The joint session delivered in person is a relatively new development in terms of the history of the country. It is tradition that the president delivers the SOTU the way he does.
The SOTU is our most royalist/monarchical event. It is worth considering doing away with it–in terms of the personal delivery and joint session. Why not have the SOTU be a written note to the Congress and the people?
The reason for the question is twofold.
- perhaps we ought not encourage the royalist aspects of politics in a Republic
- it makes the president appear like a sort of dictatorial figure.
Why bring this issue up? Because of the reaction to Justice Alito’s reaction to the almost unprecedented criticisms of the SCOTUS. Leaving aside whether the criticism was correct (and NYT’s Linda Greenhouse opines Obama was wrong on the facts), the reaction to Alito’s mild reaction is at issue.
Jonathan Chait writes a thoughtful piece at TNR today about the reaction to the reaction:
Have we really gotten so squeamish? I haven’t seen a convincing explanation as to why it’s so awful for Republicans to disagree with a presidential speech. The answer is “decorum,” but to me, decorum suggests giving latitude to the opposition. The State of the Union, remember, was originally delivered elsewhere in order to avoid the appearance of a president dictating to Congress. Forcing Congress and the Supreme Court to defer to the president as a ceremonial head of state, rather than the head of a co-equal branch of government, runs counter to the deepest spirit of our form of government.
Moreover, it represents the Washington establishment’s prudish aversion to debate. I can see why a loud outburst might be objectionable — though I’d prefer a feisty back-and-forth, like in Great Britain — but to scold Alito merely for moving his lips in such a way as to show disapproval seems to be taking the prudishness to a new extreme. Yes, he’s a Supreme Court Justice and we’re supposed to believe he has no political beliefs or agenda, but in the post Bush v. Gore world it’s a little late for that.
Besides, as Linda Greenhouse reports, Alito was right. Shouldn’t that count for something?
The argument over Alito’s reaction has caused some edge close to an argument that Alito (or anyone?) should show deference to POTUS. And, that’s the problem: It takes one step toward making the president somehow above the Law, or to put it in a revolutionary sense–it clothes the President with the scintilla of monarchical robes.
The issue is not the criticism of the court. The branches have a role in interpreting the Constitution, and they ought to wield their Constitutional powers thusly. SCOTUS is not above criticism.
This is not a partisan issue either, but a Constitutional/republican issue. Should the SOTU be continued in the manner and fashion is has been? Should it be changed? Should it be abandoned for the written form of rhetoric? Perhaps it is time to revisit our least republican tradition.
To the tape in case you have not seen it: