Reminders of Hope before a State of Despair - by Greer Clem

The State of the Union is an annual address given by the president to a joint session of Congress. It is given every year, except for the first year of the new president's term, and usually addresses topics like the economy and the current administration's legislative agenda. Article II, Section 3 of the US Constitution says: "He 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."

The State of the Union evolved over time to be a unique opportunity for the president to personally address the nation and to speak to members of all parties. When Washington gave the first annual message in 1790, he spoke on the floor of the Senate Chamber of Federal Hall in New York City, then the temporary seat of government. Nearly a century later, Abraham Lincoln's State of the Union sought to reignite hope in Congress after the battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day of the civil war. In his address, Lincoln declared that, "in giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free."

As the power and reach of the nation expanded, the relationship between the people and the president became less familiar. The State of the Union therefore became a more symbolic occasion, one in which the president could deliver an uninterrupted message more tailored to his choosing. It also became the best opportunity to learn about the personality of the president himself. Each State of the Union, though perhaps only significant in terms of rhetoric, gives an accurate glimpse into who that person is or was. John F. Kennedy, for example, made the rare choice to give a State of the Union in his first year in office, just ten days after his inauguration. He said, "I speak today in an hour of national peril and national opportunity. Before my term has ended, we shall have to test anew whether a nation organised and governed such as ours can endure. The answers are by no means clear. All of us together - this Administration, this Congress, this nation -- must forge those answers." Kennedy himself remarked that, were he to stand in front of the country ten days into his presidency and lay out "detailed legislation to remedy every national ill," Congress would rightly grow skeptical of his capabilities. Instead, he chose to introduce himself to the country and to show what type of leader he intended to be. 

Ronald Reagan delivered a State of the Union in 1986, just days after the seven members of The Challenger crew perished 73 seconds into their flight. He began, "I hope we are now ready to do what they would want us to do - go forward, America, reach for the stars. We will never forget those brave seven, but we shall go forward." In keeping with Reagan's economic focus, the remainder of his speech, which touched on issues like the American space program and international peace, was framed in terms of economic success. Once again, an American president showed the nation and the world who he was and how he wanted to lead. 

At his first State of the Union, Barack Obama addressed the nation as we endured the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He knew that the country expected not only answers but reassurance that his faith in our country was unshaken. Obama said, "The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this Nation. The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach... Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history, we still possess in ample measure. What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more." Those words, heard first by me when I was fourteen, continue to instill hope in me today. We have not lost the qualities that make us great, but we have lost a government that represents them. We now have to ask if we are willing to let those qualities disappear under the current administration.

The State of the Union may seem an odd American tradition. It rarely leads to concrete changes or new agendas. It does, however, remind Americans who their leader is. Though tonight will not be a happy reminder, it will nonetheless be an important one. Trump's use of Twitter and the press means that we all too often get a glimpse into who he is as a person and a leader. But tonight there is no phone to hide behind, no press story to spin. It is him and him alone. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will stand when he says he is making America great again and we will shake our heads. But let's not forget the words of Kennedy or Reagan or Obama, of Lincoln and Adams who sought to help our country endure. Let's remember their words so that one day, whether it be in four years or eight or twenty, we once again have someone who stands in front of our nation and understands what it truly means to be an American.

Greer Clem