State of the Union

Pelosi Moves to Cancel Trump's State of the Union Speech. Good Riddance.

The shutdown may force the government to cancel the State of the Union.


Ron Sachs/SIPA/Newscom

On Wednesday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) asked President Trump to delay his State of the Union address due to security concerns stemming from the government shutdown. Alternatively, Trump could simply submit a written statement in lieu of an in-person speech, noted Pelosi.

If Trump opted for the latter, this would be by far the best thing to come out of the shutdown. The elaborate spectacle of the modern State of the Union speech—a yearly production—is wholly unnecessary. The country would be well rid of it.

As Pelosi noted in her letter, for the first half of the country's history, virtually all State of the Union speeches—formerly known as the President's Annual Message to Congress—were delivered to the House of Representatives and read by a clerk. This became standard practice in 1801 with President Thomas Jefferson, who thought an in-person speech would be too reminiscent of a royal proclamation.

Jefferson's tradition endured until President Woodrow Wilson took office in 1913. Wilson saw the event as an opportunity rally support for his expansive domestic agenda, and subsequent presidents have typically approached it the same way.

One hundred or so State of the Unions later, the executive branch is less constrained than ever before in U.S. history. Wilson's tradition is not the sole or the predominant cause, but it does contribute to a vision of the president as the central and most important figure in the government, rather than one office amidst three co-equal branches. As Steve Chapman wrote for Reason in 2015, "The State of the Union address has grown in step with presidential presumption. It's a conspicuous symptom of a dangerous malady: We expect too much of our presidents and limit them too little."

Trump has not yet responded to Pelosi's letter, and it's hard to imagine him passing on a chance to hoard the spotlight. But if the shutdown somehow ends up forcing the government to cancel the State of the Union, I say good riddance.