While many Iowans will channel surf for anything -but- tonight’s (Tuesday) State of the Union address, at least one University of Northern Iowa political scientist will be tuned in with rapt attention. Professor Donna Hoffman co-authored a book about the significance and symbolism of the presidential speeches over the decades. Hoffman says even if you don’t watch the address tonight, you’ll hear about it tomorrow in every media outlet.
Hoffman says “Americans are kind of fickle in the way that they watch presidential addresses. If it’s a crisis address, after 9-11 for example, lots of people tuned in to watch that, but the State of the Union is regular and so more people will tune in to watch that than say an address that he might make from the Oval Office outside of a crisis.” Besides the significance of the president’s outlined goals for the year ahead, she says there is much symbolism involved — including how the president is escorted into the crowded chamber, shaking hands and to enduring applause.
Hoffman says “Presidents appear as the center of American government essentially during this speech and one of the effects of that is that a lot of Americans who do tune in to watch this speech get a false impression that the president is the center of our government as well.” She says people watching might forget the shared powers with Congress and that the president is not ordering lawmakers to act, he’s making requests.
Hoffman says President Reagan took the symbolism of the State of the Union address to a new level by recognizing people in the audience during his speech and every president since then has followed Reagan’s lead. She says shortly after the initial Iraqi elections, President Bush gave his State of the Union address and had an Iraqi woman who had voted stand up and show her purple finger.
Hoffman’s book will be out in a few months, entitled “Addressing the State of the Union: The Evolution and Impact of the President’s Big Speech.” The Constitution tells presidents they have to report to Congress on the “state of the union” and George Washington started the tradition of an oral address, but Thomas Jefferson stopped the practice, which wasn’t picked up again until Woodrow Wilson.
In the many years in between, Hoffman says presidents just wrote out their annual messages to Congress. She says “They were typically very long, very boring. They were summaries of the things that were going on in the executive departments in the executive branch. I’ve read them and they’re really not all that exciting.” They would go into detail about such things as the number of post offices and bore very little resemblance to the modern productions that are broadcast live coast-to-coast.