tv Lectures in History History of State of the Union Addresses CSPAN January 24, 2021 12:00am-1:16am EST
historical accounts you have, and inevitably they disagree in some instances between chase and nickerson that that happened. you have to make a judgment call who to >> learn more about the will ship essex sunday here on american history tv. >> next on lectures in history, a stone hill college professor teaches a class about the history of the state of the union address. he describes george washington's first address, delivered in person, but explains many other presidents chose to send congress a written statement until woodrow wilson in 1913. he explores how since then, state of the union speeches have a vault along with new technology, and in modern times, have been used to bolster political platforms. prof. ubertaccio: today we are
going to discuss the state of the union address, and we are going to do it by using jeffrey tulis to our benefit. just to recap a little bit, the state of the union address straddles two constitutional presidencies defined in your reading. the first big c constitutional presidency, these are the formal rules and procedures that define our system, and the formal expectations placed on the executive during the founding era. the big c constitutional presidency is one that proscribed popular leadership. the second one, the small c constitutional presidency, this is a creation of our progressive presidents and has been built up since the time of woodrow wilson. the small c constitutional
presidency proscribes popular leadership, it demands it of presidents. you'll recall from your reading, big c, the formal structure of the constitution, and the small c popular presidencies exist uneasily with one another in the modern area. we will pick up on this later today. we discussed earlier in the semester that, thanks to our friend, governor morris, article two of the constitution has far less specificity than article one. does anyone recall why? >> hamilton wanted presidents to seize the silence of the constitution. prof. ubertaccio: alexander hamilton and his allies want to create space within the constitution for presidents to act when the constitution is silent.
we refer to that as seizing the silences of the constitution. and this was a deliberative effort to allow presidents to attain and accumulate power within the system. and hamilton and his allies believed it should be the executive's prerogative to act when the constitution was silent, or even against the constitution if the general will demanded it, especially in foreign affairs. seizing the silences of the constitution, as you may recall, will become one of the most dangerous and controversial of presidential actions. one element of article two that is fairly specific, but has resulted in different interpretations, is the state of the union address.
this is found in section three of article two. quite simply, "he shall from time to time give to the congress information on the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” so today we are going to discuss the history of this provision, how the state of the union address has evolved over time, and consider its place in modern-american political culture, and we will use jeffrey tulis' conception of two constitutional presidencies. the history of the state of the union mirrors changes in the executive office itself. it highlights changes to our
expectations of presidential leadership, and also highlights the limits of our modern rhetorical and increasingly omnipresent president. let's start with the basic mechanics of this address. this is an annual event of state, allegedly. two houses of congress convene in the chamber of the house of representatives, the diplomatic corps is present, the joint chiefs are there, the justices of the supreme court are in attendance, the first lady enters to respectful applause, and then the most important part for me is the following. [video clip] [gavel strikes block] [applause]
>> the president of the united states. prof. ubertaccio: why do we think that particular clip is so exciting to me? not only because it would appear to be an awesome job aspiration to me, i think i could belt out, mr. speaker, the president of the united states, with an amount of ease. but what do those words indicate to us? i know it is so short, and it is not the thing that people are waiting for, but there is something about that clip that helps us to understand our constitutional system, the fact that he is announced by the house sergeant at arms indicates that this is not the president's domain. this is not his house. he comes by invitation. he is escorted. before this happens, the speaker
of the house of representatives and the vice president of the united states, acting in his capacity as president of the senate, will put together an escort committee of legislators, and they will exit the chamber, and typically these are congressional leaders, maybe members of congress from the president's home state, and they will escort the president into the chamber of the house. it is important to understand this, because in a system of separate institutions, a system of separation of powers, the president doesn't just walk in. this is not his government. he is invited by the house to address them, and he walks into a coequal branch of government. after the pomp, this speech takes on, today, all the hallmarks of a political rally.
if there is one feature of the state of the union address we are all familiar with, it is the incessant applause. and the unusual nature, particularly during divided government where one party controls one or both houses in the president is of a different party, if the president says something and the speaker is of his party, the speaker stands, and if the speaker is not a member of his party, the speaker remains seated while the vice president applauds. this looked awkward during the clinton years, sometimes they don't stand, sometimes half the chamber stands to applaud if the president says something partisan. this looks more like a political rally than anything else.
"the washington post" reported that during george w. bush's state of the union address, for every minute of his speech there were 29 seconds of applause. so that is a lot of interruptions in a state of the union address. many people watch. president trump commanded an audience of 46 million americans during his 2018 state of the union. that ranks ninth in terms of viewership of a presidential address before congress, and that includes all presidential addresses. not all presidential addresses are state of the union speeches. president clinton's address in 1993 was most-watched, with 65 million people tuning in. no surprise that those numbers have declined, and probably will continue to decline, if for no other reason citizens have a lot of other options when presidents are on television.
those of us of a certain age will remember that when the president was on television, there were no other options, because there were three stations and each one has the president of the united states giving an address. if that seems like a long time ago, i guess it was a long time ago. today citizens have a lot of other options to choose from when a president is speaking. it also makes it more difficult for presidents to get their message out, because so many of us are no longer tuning in. so it is not a surprise we would see that decline. there are other reasons why it might not be a surprise. remember that second constitutional presidency of jeffrey tulis's requires popular leadership. it requires presidents to stand in the well of the house, it -- to demand congress move certain bills, it requires presidents to try to grab the
mantle of public opinion. there are a few big problems here. the first is that that large c constitutional presidency separates power. the reason i enjoyed the clip of the sergeant of arms introducing the president is because it is a reminder that congress is independently elected and has its own source of power, not derived from the executive, and that congress itself is divided between those two houses and those two houses are rarely under the thumb of the executive, even when the president is popular. the second big problem is that presidents routinely face a congress that is further divided by political party. in the modern era only franklin roosevelt, john kennedy, lyndon johnson and jimmy carter have had one-party control of congress during their entire presidency. and you know from your reading
of history that even they faced significant obstacles. the four years of the carter presidency, one might wonder if in fact the republicans did control congress, because he faced so many obstacles in getting his agenda through that institution. so even one-party control does not guarantee that presidents are going to be successful in congress. finally, the third dilemma here is that popular leadership is almost always predicated on the popularity of the incumbent president. and some presidencies become extraordinarily unpopular. when you think of the last two years of the presidency of woodrow wilson for example, or the last two years of the presidency of george w. bush, presidents became really unpopular during that time in office.
and if that second constitutional presidency is predicated on popular leadership, what happens when the president becomes extraordinarily unpopular? and even when they are popular, when they remained relatively popular, they can in certain congressional districts be really unpopular, and if those congressional districts are important to the leadership in the house and the senate, that is an additional obstacle presidents have in getting the legislation through congress. so what if anything can the state of the union do here? how can it address these problems of popular leadership? what i would argue is that it can do very little, because it has become less a tool of governance and more a window into the executive's unique view into our constitutional system,
and much more of a partisan address. it might be that the state of the union is part of the problem of the modern presidency. so let's talk a little bit about the history of this address, and see if we can't understand it a little bit better, changes to it over time, and understand how it fits into our examples of modern presidential leadership. a provision in the constitution, article two, section three, it did not have an equivalent in the articles of confederation. so the framers of our constitution were not pulling this from the articles of confederation. you know the articles of confederation really provided no more than a presiding officer for the executive, so there was no model there for them to pull from.
our state of the union was modeled on the king's speech from the throne, which was called in the most gracious speech in parliament. we refer to it to the queen's speech today in honor of queen elizabeth. the most gracious speech to parliament, this was an occasion when the monarch commanded members of parliament to attend to him as he laid before them his priorities and his policy recommendations. king george iii's speech in 1775 noted, "the present situation in america and my constant desire to have your advice, concurrence and assistance on every important occasion have determined me to call you thus together early.”
this is a command, no matter how gracious the languages. this is a command that parliament attend to the king. this language was modified a bit, as one might expect, in the early american constitution. the new york constitution of 1777, quote, "it shall be the duty of the governor to inform the legislature at every session of the condition of the state so far as may respect his department to recommend such matters to their consideration, as shall appear to him to concern its good government, welfare and prosperity.” the pennsylvania constitution was more straightforward and more similar to what we find in the u.s. constitution.
"he shall from time to time give to the general assembly information of the state of the commonwealth and recommend to their consideration such measures as he may judge expedient.” the impetus for the state of the union address, the language we find in the constitution, derives in part from the expectations placed on the american executive. recall that when the office was designed, it was to be the only one that had a view of the whole, the only office that could see the needs of the whole country, whereas members of congress were expected to have more parochial concerns. they were expected to be more concerned about issues confronting their districts, their constituents or their states, and the executive was the only one that, by virtue of that position on top of the
constitutional structure, could see the entirety. it was also supposed to be inhabited by continental figures, who were to have a sense of public opinion but were not to be beholden to public opinion. now the first state of the union was very brief and very formal, and it was also the shortest on record in terms of word count. it registered 1089 words, and that is like a four-page paper, unless you increase your font size. so we are talking short. washington said, "i have directed the proper officers who lay before you respectfully such papers and estimates as regard the affairs, particularly recommended to your consideration and necessary to convey to you that information
of the state of the union which is my duty to afford." that is not really eloquent or memorable, but it is a style that is in line with washington's goal to read the constitution literally and to follow it plainly. washington is doing this for what reason? why is washington so concerned about following the constitution so plainly? >> because he was the first president and knew that anything you do would set a precedent? prof. ubertaccio: ok, because he knew he was first, and he knew that everything he did was going to establish a precedent. so in so many of his actions, he was careful about how he proceeded, and the state of the
union is no exception. his addresses are very formal, rather succinct, and quite frankly, at the time government was just getting started so there weren't many things to report as far as the state of affairs at that time. now washington is delivering this address in person, and that practice continues under his successor john adams. washington's average word count for his state of the union addresses is about 2000 words, not lengthy. adams was a bit less wordy, he had an average of 1790 words for his state of the union addresses. thomas jefferson, when he assumes office after the bitter
election of 1800, ends the practice of giving the state of the union in person. he believes that the ceremony itself smacks of monarchy. we are well aware of jefferson's views on monarchs, and he thought this speech was far too similar to the king's speech from the throne. i thought it might be useful, this is not king george iii, but i do have queen elizabeth ii, so at least to get a sense of style in what this looks like. we will talk about substance in a second. if you're familiar with how our presidents are introduced during the state of the union, this clip is somewhat of a shock. [video clip]
[respectful silence] >> be seated. prof. ubertaccio: now, what she does there is, she is commanding the lords to attend to her, to sit on her command. and after that she will give an indication that the house of commons is to be summoned to attend to her as well. it is interesting about the way the british do this, neither the
queen nor the house of lords is where actual political power resides in the united kingdom. but during this address, which is very formal, there is no applause, she is actually reading the words the government has written for her, the government will stand in the back of the house of commons, the prime minister of the cabinet, the opposition, they all stand in the rear after being summoned by the queen. now, they do slam the door in the face of her messenger, who is called black rod, but they open it, the black rod will enter, and command them to attend her majesty. this is all a little bit too much for thomas jefferson. it's a little too much to allow a president and executive to command the attendance of representatives of the people. so he ends the practice. incidentally, thomas jefferson is not a great speaker.
he is a great writer, he is a phenomenal thinker, he is not the best at public oratory. so that may also have had something to do with him ending this tradition. but traditions of george washington don't die easily, because the two-term tradition that ends up being written into the constitution, nevertheless jefferson is able to end this tradition. when he stops appearing before congress, it will be well over 100 years before another president will appear before congress to deliver the state of the union. now here, presidents are freed from the burden of oral delivery, and as a result they become much more verbose. jefferson's first state of the union had just over 3000 words.
this would swell to over 10,000 under millard fillmore, who appears from time to time, irregularly in this class. it would average about 19,000 under the progressive theodore roosevelt, and hit a high of 22,614 words under the conservative william howard taft. our most loquacious modern president is bill clinton and his speeches delivered before congress would average about 7400 words, just to give you a comparison of the different. the last time a president submitted a written address was jimmy carter, upon leaving office in 1981. and that written address was, in the modern era, significant, 33,000 words.
his final, orally-delivered was about 3400. president trump's was not the greatest, not the smallest. >> what is the difference between the written and the oral addresses? can a president still submit a written address? prof. ubertaccio: the answer between what is the difference is only really that they are longer, but that is just by style. there is nothing constitutionally ordained in the idea that a written state of the union would be longer than an orally-delivered state of the union. when you don't have the pressure to speak publicly, you can write as much as you want because then it is some poor clerk's responsibility to read it than it is for you to deliver it. the second part of the question, can a president if they so choose deliver their state of the union address in a written
fashion? what do we think? can a president if they so desire send their state of the union in a written form? >> yes. prof. ubertaccio: yes, they can. yes, they can. it is simply a choice. president carter gave his last, in 1981, in written fashion. in the early 1970's president nixon experimented with written addresses that were all very lengthy, although he gave most of his state of the union addresses in person. it is just a choice. it's a good question because the demands of the second constitutional presidency, the one that proscribes popular leadership, makes it difficult to imagine how presidents can avoid delivering it in person. because it demands the spectacle even if it is largely
unsuccessful at times. carter in 1981 was on his way out of office, having been defeated by ronald reagan, so that is an exception. but presidents certainly reserve the right. the constitution only says that they shall do this from time to time, it doesn't mandate that they do it either written or in person. note that millard fillmore is hitting 10,000 words and his written address and bill clinton is averaging about 7000, it is ironic because one of the modern critiques of the state of the union addresses that they are nothing more than long laundry lists of proposals, but of course the written addresses were far longer than those that have been delivered in person.
the difference, beyond the length, is the expectation, the expectation of a personal address with its command that congress do things, and increasingly its overt appeal to partisanship, the commitment presidents are expected to make in their state of the union is very different than what we saw when they issued these addresses in writing. so there tradition, even if they are shorter than their written counterparts, presidents lay before congress a very long list of policy proposals. the difference is that in the earlier addresses, it appeared presidents were aware that they alone did not have power to demand compliance with the goals, whereas our modern version suggests that, we have
talked about the presidential magic wand and a president just waves that magic wand they will get congress to do what they want. they often try to and they realize the magic wand isn't working. it rarely, rarely does. so this in-person practice was reinstated by woodrow wilson in april 1913. wilson believed the constitutional separation of powers was a flaw in the american constitutional system. he spent a good part of his life critiquing separation of power. he was not alone in this. interestingly, we can consider william howard taft, his
conservative predecessor. taft sent his december 1912 address to congress in written fashion. there is a fascinating passage. taft, in the 1912 election which pitted a radical, theodore roosevelt, versus a radical woodrow wilson, and the conservative william howard taft, the defender of the constitution. he wrote in his 1912 address, the rigid holding a part of the executive and legislative branches of this government has not worked for the great advantage of either. there has been much lost and the machinery due to the lack of cooperation and interchange of views face-to-face between
representatives of the executive and members of the two legislative branches of government. it was never intended that they should be separated in the sense of not being in constant effective touch and relationships to each other. the legislative and executive each performed its own appropriate function. these functions must be coordinated. that is a fascinating passage from william howard taft. it is something we expect wilson to have said. there was a yearning for greater cooperation, greater coordination between branches. the address wilson gave in april 1913 was not an official state of the union. in the written form, the state of the union was delivered in december of the calendar year at that time.
the practice of a december state of the union did not change until 1934 with a changing congressional calendars. now they are given mid-to-late january. occasionally early february, at start of the congressional session. woodrow wilson believed a strong party leader could overcome what he viewed as it the defect of our constitutional system. during the early years of his presidency, he dominated the democratic party and congress. it lent credence to his views that a popular party leader could overcome the obstacle embedded in the constitution. he did not formally change the constitution.
presidents are not prime ministers. nor are they monarchs. he was able to temporarily overcome constitutional norms without changing the terms of the constitution. he appeared frequently before congress to talk about a range of issues in addition to his formal state of the union. because of that, he created an expectation of presidential government. of executive leadership that is capable of via words and actions of ameliorating social and economic disparities and political differences. he created an expectation of that wand. presidents could wave it and congress and the states would do a president's bidding.
this view has largely stuck through democratic and republican administrations. despite the unhappy experience of wilson's last two years in office. he presents the promises of popular leadership, of which the state of the union is an example, but also the perils of popular leadership. you may remember the 1918 midterm election, his second midterm of the second term as president, represented a rejection of woodrow wilson. the republicans gained control of both houses of congress. what good is popular party leadership if a president's party does not control congress?
the senate rejected his proposal for a league of nations. they did this despite his efforts to tour the country, to rally public opinion to his cause. wilson hoped the president would be the repository of public opinion and that would force congress to act in the way he saw fit. by the end of his presidency, he was no longer the repository of public opinion. he was no longer popular. but he built a model of presidential leadership that is based on popularity. in the final year in particular for wilson's presidency, it is a lonely one. despite the grim reality, his transformation of the state of the union was complete.
it is now a central feature of a wilsonian view of government and executive power. it was not immediate. in addition to the 1988 repudiation of the wilson's presidency, the country returned to normalcy in 1920 and his conservative successors do not follow his lead. calvin coolidge appeared once before congress. harding, hoover, coolidge, they are not delivering state of the union in person. they are reverting to the earlier jeffersonian tradition of delivering it in writing. since the presidency of franklin roosevelt, it has become customary for the president to deliver the address before a joint session of congress.
though the constitution is clear the president shall give to congress information on the state of the union, the context of the speech during the modern era has changed dramatically. one of the most important developments is under lyndon johnson. johnson brings the speech into prime time. this allows the address to be given directly to the american people. this dramatically increases the number of people paying attention to the state of the union address. the first televised state of the union occurred in 1947 after 20 years of radio coverage.
calvin coolidge was -- we popularly remember fdr as the president who harnessed radio but it was really coolidge to begin with to harness the new technology. his presidency it was the first to use radio effectively. franklin roosevelt was more effective and the context had changed dramatically. roosevelt is also the first to call this the state of the union. it had been called the annual address. roosevelt is at the first to popularize the term every year. harry truman is the first to appear on television to deliver the state of the union. those technological advances started to make the speech less of an address to the congress and more of an address to the american people from congress.
the house of representatives becomes a cool television set for presidents to directly address the american people. which is a very different interpretation of the state of the union than we find in the constitution and what early presidents expected. johnson formalizes this by moving the speech into prime time. if it is going to be a speech where you are talking directly to the people, why not do it when most of them can watch? [video clip] >> on this hill which was my home, i'm stirred by old friendships. though total agreement between the executive and the congress is impossible, total respect is important.
prof. ubertaccio: we know a lot about president johnson. those are significant words. he did mean respect for him and his office and his policy proposals. that state of the union is delivered in january of 1969, that is his final. a short time before richard nixon would take the oath of office as president. presidents were also delivering these at the end of their term a which is custom they no longer subscribe to. the last time a president delivered a state of the union at the end of their presidency was president carter who delivered it in writing. some presidents like ronald reagan have chosen a farewell address. none since carter formally had a state of the union in january in their final couple of weeks in office.
note the wilsonian conception. not only is he moving it into prime time so millions of americans can watch. while he acknowledges it can never get together perfectly, total respect is important. what that means respect for the presidency and its policy initiatives. in 1969, we are coming off of pretty significant legislative enactments by johnson. this is the height of an activist federal government. the state of the union was designed, in part, to harness the power of the executive. the opposition party was not going to allow an increase in viewership to happen without a response.
in 1966, republican congressional leaders gave the first official response to a state of the union address. it was a 30 minute televised address by everett dirksen and gerald ford. the republican leaders of the house and senate. this tradition takes off. in fits and starts they did not always do in the early years, by the 1970's, it is a tradition and routinely given by a member of the opposition party immediately following the state of the union. you may recall joe kennedy gave the opposition response to president trump in 2018. sometimes they are given by congressional leaders.
other times, they are given by up and coming members of the party. sometimes governors will give the address. it is a way for the opposition party to highlight its message in a response to the state of the union address by a president. after moving it to prime time -- you might think what more can you do to innovate the state of the union address? what more can presidents do to reinterpret or reimagine this constitutional directive? when ronald reagan entered office in 1981, he did not allow his essential conservatism to prevent him from expanding the spectacle that the state of the union had become. reagan is also a master of stage craft and at storytelling.
in 1982, he adds something we had not seen before. [video clip] >> just two weeks ago in the midst of a terrible tragedy on the potomac, we saw american heroism at its finest, dedicated rescue workers saving victims and we saw the heroism of the one of our young government employees who when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line and dived into the water and dragged her to safety. [applause]
prof. ubertaccio: president reagan adding this element. bringing in honored guests and introducing them from the floor. these are stories of great american heroes. he is turning the state of the union into something we might expect on television, great stories, great people to introduce. it has very little to do with the constitutional directive, but it has a lot to do with the small c second constitutional presidency which demands popular leadership. we see these things starting to flourish in the 1980's and 1990's. in this particular instance, more often than not, the folks who are being introduced are nonpartisan. everyone has a reason to want to applaud and to recognize them.
presidents do not miss opportunities to score partisan points. something similar occurred during the presidency of bill clinton in the 1996 address. see if you can spot the difference. [video clip] >> i would like to give you an example. his name is richard dean. he is a 49-year-old vietnam veteran who has worked for the social security administration for 22 years. last year, he was hard at work in the federal building in oklahoma city when the blast killed 159 people. it brought the rubble down all around. he reentered that building four times and the saved the lives of three women. he is here with us this evening and i want to recognize richard and applaud his public service and his extraordinary personal
on behalf of richard dean and his family and all of the people who are out there working every day doing a good job for the american people, i challenge all of you in this chamber, let's never ever shut the federal government down again. [applause] prof. ubertaccio: what is the difference between that clip of ronald reagan and this clip from bill clinton? >> bill clinton uses his story to turn a personal story he created into an account to score points for his political party. prof. ubertaccio: clinton takes this moment, not unlike the reagan moment, of national unity, a certifiable hero, someone who raced into the oklahoma city building as it was being turned into rubble to rescue people on multiple occasions.
and then he uses that to make a political argument about not shutting down the government. that is very different. if we had watched all of the applause, you would have seen behind president clinton is the republican speaker of the house new gingrich. republicans controlled the house and senate in 1996. you would have seen that moment where one party stands wildly to applaud while another party sits grimly. clinton scored. he scored politically. and so we start to see the address, the lure of politics is too great for many presidents. this is wilson's small c constitutional presidency. it is designed for party leadership.
and so presidents do not avoid the opportunity to use the address to try to score political points. we are far away from that formal address that george washington would have given. we are now into the latter stages of that small c constitutional presidency where presidents are using opportunities to advance a political agenda. where are we today? you may recall instances that are hallmarks of today's address. the first one is really unusual and does not happen often. as the address has become more partisan, it is perhaps something we should expect to see again in the future. you may recall this. [video clip] >> there are those who claim
reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. this is false. the reform i am proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally. >> you lie. [booing] >> not true. prof. ubertaccio: that is congressman joe wilson yelling at president obama, you lie. that is not a formal state of the union address, but a presidential address before congress. the president is speaking about the health care bill that he is advancing. wilson apologizes for the outburst. it was considered a breach of decorum. there is that. the face on the vice president and nancy pelosi during this is classic. they considered this a real breach. yet, as the address has become more partisan, it is perhaps not
unusual that the house would look more like the house of commons during a debate, if you have ever seen prime minister's questions. it is shown every week on c-span on sunday evening. i don't know what you are doing on sunday evenings, but i am usually watching a clip from prime minister's questions, much to the chagrin of my children. they would rather be watching sunday night football. we get in a little british civics before the big game. they shout and yell at each other and hoot and holler, and it is typically not how business in the american house is done. this resembles that a little more where you have a member of congress speaking out during the course of a presidential state of the union. let's watch this next clip and see what your reaction is. this is a state of the union by president obama in 2010. [video clip] >> with all due deference to
separation of powers, last week, the supreme court reversed a century of law that i believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations to spend without limit in our election. [applause] i do not think american elections should be bankrolled by america's most powerful interests or worse, by foreign entities. they should be decided by the american people. i urge democrats and republicans to pass the bill to help correct this. prof. ubertaccio: what do we notice about this clip? from the 2010 state of the union address? what is our takeaway? our first impression? anything unusual? grace?
>> one of the supreme court justices was kind of like shaking his head. prof. ubertaccio: justice alito was not having it. he did not agree with president obama's assessment of what the supreme court had decided in the citizens united case. what was his reaction? >> to not stand up and shake his head. prof. ubertaccio: he did not stand up and he did shake his head ever so slightly. that look i give you when i am like really? that slight shake of the head. maybe you mouth something. he is mouthing not true if you slow it down. what do we notice about what the supreme court does? we have a president of the u.s. who says in all due deference. however, he does launch a broadside against the supreme court. what does the supreme court do in response?
>> they do not stand up. prof. ubertaccio: they don't stand up. they actually never stand up. presidents know this. they do when it is a completely unobjectionable point. at the outset, presidents are introduced and everyone applauds out of respect. when the president introduces a hero in the audience, the supreme court will stand. when it is an unobjectionable and nonpartisan overture the president is making, the court will respond accordingly. but for the entire address, when presidents are issuing policy proposals, members of congress are applauding every few seconds, the supreme court sits and does not respond. what we think that is? why do members of the supreme court sit there in silence? >> because they are supposed to remain above the political debate. prof. ubertaccio: they are supposed to remain above it all.
why? >> because they are supposed to be the independent judiciary who decides what is constitutional and what is not and not try to get involved in the nuances of politics. prof. ubertaccio: their commitment is to the rule of law. it would be detrimental to rule of law if the president said something like i want you to pass this campaign finance bill and half the supreme court applauded and the other half did not and then they were called to adjudicate the issue, which we know, they will be called upon to do because most political issues and policy issues end up as issues before the court. it is unusual for a president to call out the court in this way when they are seated in front of him, unable to respond, while partisans stand up around them and applaud.
that is a very awkward scene. some supreme court justices after this, you will not see justice alito at a state of the union since this time. he has stopped going. he did not hide his frustration. he has just stopped attending. justice scalia had a long stopped attending because he thought they had turned into childish affairs. when you see the applause, justice thomas said, the viewing audience cannot hear the things that are said under the breath of members of congress. many justices view this as a waste of time. i think only four attended the most recent state of the union address. ok. joe wilson's outburst is a small example that has not really been repeated since.
president obama's broadside against the supreme court, it does not happen that often. our recent state of the union addresses encourage the wilsonian view that the problem with our system is the constitutional separation of powers. separate institutions. state of the unions encouraged the idea that feature of our constitution is a defect. and that presidents are and should be political saviors who can dictate policy demands and deadlines to congress. the reality is, many presidents have learned -- one of the best readings this semester is what presidents can learn from political scientists. they do not have a magic wand. that would be my memo to the president.