What is the purpose of the State of the Union Address?
Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution provides 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." While Presidents Washington and Adams were largely passive in their usage of this power, Jefferson saw it as an important tool in leading the nation. Where the previous two presidents had shied away from proposing specific policies and legislation, Jefferson saw it as his duty to do so. As President, he believed he could see the nations problems from a wider view than could members of Congress preoccupied with the concerns of their local constituencies (see Forrest McDonald's American Presidency, p. 259-60).
Notwithstanding Jefferson's effective use of his annual messages to the Congress, the the State of the Union Address has not always been regarded an important presidential power. Indeed, following Andrew Jackson's unsuccessful efforts to reassert the President's role as an important participant in the legislative process, there ensued a seventy-year period during which annual presidential addresses to the Congress were "formulaic" and largely unimportant (see McDonald, p. 355). Lincoln was the lone exception among presidents during this period who took a more aggressive approach to his dealings with the Congress. After Lincoln, it was not until Teddy Roosevelt occupied the Oval Office that presidential State of the Union Addresses once again became an important political event. Roosevelt, in fact, articulated and acted on a new vision of the role of the President in policy-making. As the single elected official called on to lead the entire nation, Roosevelt believed the Presidency ought to be used as a "bully pulpit" to convince and cajole the Congress and the rest of the nation to do the right thing (as he saw it).
Taking up where Roosevelt left off, Woodrow Wilson assumed the Office of the President with every intention of being the leader, not the follower, in the legislative process. He self-consciously used his State of the Union Addresses as opportunities to establish what his legislative agenda. Virtually every President during the 20th Century has done likewise, setting forth his policy objectives, sometimes even directly challenging the Congress to pass laws to enact those objectives within explicit time frames. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower instituted the practice of submitting a complete legislative agenda to the Congress in conjunction with their State of the Union Addresses, complete with proposed text for some of the specific bills they proposed (see McDonald, p. 368). The most striking example of Presidential leadership in the legislative process remains Franklin Roosevelt's stewardship over an emergency 100-day session of the Congress in 1933 during which numerous pieces of landmark legislation aimed at combating the Great Depression were passed.
Presidents since FDR have sought to replicate his accomplishments. Ronald Reagan tried to push an ambitious legislative agenda through the Congress during his first few months as President. He succeeded in extracting significant tax cuts from the Congress, but his desired spending cuts were never approved by the legislative branch. Bill Clinton similarly called on the Congress to pass significant legislation during the first year of his first term as President, even using the image of FDR's "100-days" as rallying-point. For a variety of reasons, Clinton's efforts were less successful than Reagan's. However, as Clinton's final State of the Union Address suggests, the opportunity to stand before the Congress on national television and articulate a vision for America is too much for Clinton--or any President for that matter--to pass by without a bit of boldness. Few if any of the initiatives proposed by Clinton will become law during his final year in office. By stating his legislative goals in his final annual address before the members of the House and the Senate, however, Clinton made it clear that he intends to remain an important participant in the legislative process. His success or failure, however, will ultimately depend not on his ability to give a moving speech, but to work with individual members of the Congress to make his policy preferences reality. Given the track-records of Presidents in the last years of their second terms of office, Clinton's chances of significant legislative success are not good.
The State of the Union Address to watch, the one that will likely have a profound impact on the direction of this nation and its policies for years to come, was not the one given last week, but the one that will be given a year from now, by the newly elected President of the United States.