Win Gruening: The State of the Union is a needed American tradition

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“Well done is better than well said.”
– Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1737

By WIN GRUENING

Polarization and divisiveness continue to define our politics, yet Americans still hope that President Joe Biden will make good on his promise to unite the country.

The president’s Inaugural unity theme and his recent primetime speech were consistent with his campaign rhetoric and how he conducted himself during his long political career – as a moderate, not a rancorous partisan.

But, since the election, many members and supporters of the new administration don’t appear to be getting the same message, as vitriol is hurled at anyone who worked with and for, or even supported, former President Donald Trump. 

Indeed, Biden’s apparent intention of ruling almost exclusively by executive order, the total lack of bi-partisan support for his progressive agenda, and the dismissal of sitting non-partisan appointees run counter to fostering the harmony he claims to promote. 

Compounding this, President Biden’s reluctance to hold press conferences or answer questions about his agenda has further concerned many Americans and a growing number in the media.

This has focused attention on the tradition of the State of the Union Address (or SOTU, as it is sometimes referred) as a way for President Biden to communicate his willingness to heal the divide and improve the state of the union.

Historically, U.S. Presidents have used the SOTU to reassure the nation during times of conflict or dissension and announce new initiatives.

The SOTU is usually delivered in late January to early February.  In the first year of a presidency, it’s officially called an “address to the joint session of Congress” not a State of the Union, although most people still refer to it as the latter.

There’s no set length for the speech. George Washington’s first annual message was the shortest (in words), at 1,089 words. Bill Clinton’s 2000 address was the longest in-person speech, lasting 1hr:28min:49sec.

While the Constitution mandates 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” (Article II, section 3), this duty has been performed in many ways. The first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, appeared before Congress to read the Annual Message themselves.

In 1801, Thomas Jefferson set a new precedent by sending the Annual Message as a document. Clerks read the message into the record to largely empty chambers. Later presidents merely summarized the annual reports of the executive departments rather than offering policy recommendations. 

Over a century later, on December 2, 1913, Woodrow Wilson revived the tradition of delivering the Annual Message to Congress as an in-person speech. He expanded the scope of the annual message, transforming it from a departmental report into a tool to promote his policies.  

The name “State of the Union” began informally in 1942, under Franklin Roosevelt and has been the official title of the address since 1947. 

In 1966, Senator Everett Dirksen and Representative Gerald Ford made a televised joint Republican response to President Lyndon Johnson’s message, an opposition party practice that has since continued.

Ronald Reagan began the tradition of inviting citizens who have recently distinguished themselves in some field of service or endeavor to be personal guests. The President introduces them and recognizes their contributions to the country.

A Biden State of the Union address this year would be unique, both because of the new administration and because it would be the first since the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic. Regardless of its label, Biden’s address to the nation before a joint session of Congress is sorely overdue.

It’s been a rough year for the country.  During WWII, FDR would gather Americans around their radios to reassure and inform them.  With the pandemic nearly behind us , our new President should similarly summon Americans to their screens (TVs, computers, phones) and use the SOTU platform to clearly identify for them how he is making things better and what specific steps he is taking to unify the country.

We’ve heard Biden talk the talk, now the country needs to see him walk the walk.

Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970.

9 COMMENTS

  1. We’ve heard Biden’s puppet masters speak through his lips and teleprompter, but they are in far too much fear to put him out to bumble a response (I’ll be surprised if he really takes questions March 25). The country needs a leader desperately and will continue to flail without purpose until another one arises.

    • We still have one. Do you have such a short memory? No Republican is willing to change because to do so in biden’s way of thinking means you have to do what he wants. If it was truly a compromise give and take, that might be a different thing but when he says we’re going to unite the country that means we’re going to be doing it his way and that’s bull crap not going to happen

  2. The SOTU speech is political theatre, nothing more. It’s about as essential as Lisa’s vote in the Senate. It should go the way of the dodo.

    Biden is already waking his talk. Open borders, mask requirements, job destruction, war on women,…I’ve heard enough from Joe to last a lifetime

  3. One must remember that Trump promised he would be a “uniter”, but didn’t disclose that he would unite everyone to oppose everything that wouldn’t benefit him personally. Biden already has succeeded in getting a bill through congress that will advantage more people than anything Trump did. As far as executive orders go, that, too, was Trump’s main means of attempting to destroy democracy because he couldn’t get much passed through congress after 2018. He even needed to use reconciliation to get his heinous tax cut for the rich through the Senate in 2017.
    And then there’s Mitch, the person who has threatened congress with death and destruction if it doesn’t let him keep the filibuster (you know, the one he, himself, abrogated in order to ram three Supreme Court nominations through the Senate). Now the shoe is on the other foot. You, and Mitch and his cronies, can’t have it both ways, although you all keep on tryin’.

  4. Why do we always look for a savior at the presidential level? I think it’s time we all look inward for the strength to make our country a better place. Working at local levels where the average citizen CAN make a difference is a good place to start.

    In addition, it’s time to stop pretending that Biden is in charge. He’s not. Have you seen his eyes? They’re dead. Putting this man before the public in this state of dementia is elder abuse. Does he deserve it? Let’s let God be the judge of that.

    • You’re exactly correct. With government you do have to start with your local and state levels to try to fix things. It is the only levels you have a chance to save first. Everyone wants to do it backwards, from the top down, getting government under control works better working from the state/local level and then up. Sadly we have a lot of people who fail us once they get in control, whether it’s greed, corruption, or not sticking to their word.

  5. We peons do not need to know what they are going to do to us in their minds. Not that we don’t already have a good idea of what’s to come. They dictate, you follow, no need for output or input of information with this administration ,because they have it already set what they are going to do to us, whether we like it or not, and they don’t give a rat’s — what the people think or want.

  6. A very polite and noble article Win!

    I wish I could have just a bit of your restraint when judging the Biden puppet show and his incredibly evil progressive totalitarian handlers on the left.

    As an immigrant to the US I was once told that Americans do not know how to protect their hard earned liberties and freedoms.

    May we all survive the totalitarian fraud of BLM, Critical Race Theory, Cancel Culture, Identity Politics, the WOKE movement and the left Statists.

    We survived Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Napoléon Bonaparte; why not the likes of AOC, Soros, Pelosi, Sanders and Bezos/Zuckerberg?

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