Published: March 12, 2019 By

Summary

On February fifth of this year, President Trump stood before Congress and delivered the annual State of the Union Address. His speech covered issues ranging from the proposed border wall, to women’s issues, to the recent withdrawal of troops from Syria. Afterwards, Stacy Abrams and Senator Bernie Sanders delivered criticisms in their rebuttal speeches, and pundits began to debate the merits of President Trump’s speech in terms of his tone, assertions, and style.  As with many prior State of the Union Addresses, whether or not viewers approved of President Trump’s speech was primarily a function of how well viewers approved of him.

Although this speech is interesting to examine in and of itself, it is also intriguing to analyze the State of the Union Address as a phenomenon. This speech is a reoccurring instance of executive agenda-setting. When we consider the address in this light, it becomes part of a broader conversation in political science that is relevant year-round.

After discussing the origin of the State of the Union, this article will examine an ongoing debate: how important is the State of the Union Address? Is it still impactful in agenda setting, and is it an effective means by which the president engages with Congress and the public? Or is it a pleasantry nowadays, and a mere milestone by which to measure how the power of the presidency has changed over time? This debate extends beyond each February.align="right"

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Photograph by NBC News, 2019

A brief history of the address

The US Constitution says (in Article II, Section 3, to be exact,) 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.” Stemming from this simple constitutional instruction, the State of the Union Address has been given under different names, and in different forms since 1790. Some State of the Union Addresses have made a greater mark upon history than others. To offer a few examples, speeches made by President Lincoln in 1862, President Roosevelt in 1941, and President Bush in 2002 are remembered as significant for their content, and the context in which they were given. Although there are many addresses that made a mark on history, current debate raises the question: outside of notable instances, is this speech still impactful as an institution?

Opposing Viewpoints

The State of the Union Address has little relative impact:

Those who argue that the State of the Union Address has little relative impact often say that the speech is not a powerful agenda setting tool. They critique the address in terms of its agenda setting power because that is what the speech is constitutionally designed to do: inform Congress of the president’s priorities.  Detractors of the address point to all of the more powerful means by which the president can influence the congressional agenda. For example, the president now presides over the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which informs Congress of the president’s agenda not in grandiose prose, but in exacting line-items. Detractors of the address argue that the speech pales in comparison to the presidential budget with regards to offering Congress a substantive agenda.

Alongside the OMB, the presidency has expanded in its powers both formally and informally, making each State of the Union Address less significant. One executive function that has increased over time is the use of executive orders. These orders go beyond agenda-setting; they increase the power of the executive branch, making it less beholden to Congress.

Outside of issuing executive orders, presidents can also “go public,” and use the media to announce their agenda on issues large and small. This is a powerful form of agenda-setting because it reaches legislators’ constituents directly, and allows the president to continually and fluidly adapt his agenda. This lessens the functional impact of the yearly address – at least according to detractors. In the age of expanded executive power, how much does a broad yearly speech really matter?

The State of the Union Address is still influential:

There are also those who argue that the State of the Union is an influential tool of the presidency. The address has evolved over time, but it remains a way for the president to set (or re-set) the tone with Congress. Presidents can use this speech as an opportunity to invite cooperation with political opponents, or to reinforce issues on which the president is unlikely to compromise.  In this way, the State of the Union Address can be used as a signaling device. The president may need to present a specified budget to Congress to set an agenda, and the address offers an opportunity for the president to send influential signals.

Finally, the function of the address goes beyond agenda setting and signaling games – the president has symbolic and rhetorical power too. In the face of national victories, tragedies, and remarkable events, Congress and the viewing public may want to hear words commemorating the past, or words of clarity and encouragement for the future.  Therefore, ,any argue that we should not discount the rhetorical importance of the State of the Union Address. 

The political science perspective

Political scientists may take opposing positions on the State of the Union Address, but political science as whole does not force a reconciliation on the question of the speech’s influence. Rather, it seeks to understand and predict. This is exemplified in political science literature on the address. For example, one study finds that presidents are less influenced by pre-coverage of the address when they view the press as adversarial, as opposed to friendly. This study has implications about the relationship between the president and the media that extend beyond the State of the Union Address.

Furthermore, political science research that is not directly focused upon the State of the Union Address has implications that relate to the address. As an example of this, McCombs and Shaw (1972) find that media coverage has a significant impact upon what issues voters think are salient issues in campaigns. Therefore, the address and its media coverage may influence issue salience among voters. Ultimately, the State of the Union Address can be studied as an instance unto itself, or as a more broadly applicable instance of agenda setting, media influence, signaling, executive rhetoric, and other phenomena. This means that regardless of how influential the address is, political science can always find new ways to draw deeper understanding from this speech.

Questions for further consideration:

  • With media and social media coverage on the rise, the president has an increased ability to speak directly to the public. How might this affect the agenda-setting process? How might this change the formal ways in which the president relates to Congress and the public?
  • Are there discernible trends in the State of the Union Addresses between presidencies? What might drive these trends? How might these trends help us understand and predict the contents of future speeches?
  • The Constitution states that the president is supposed to “give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.” How might information influence the policy making process between the executive and legislative branches?