Once upon a time, a State of the Union speech occasionally produced something memorable. James Monroe, in his seventh try, came up with the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, which would be the cornerstone of American foreign policy for decades.
Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the Four Freedoms in 1941, arguing that people "everywhere in the world" ought to enjoy freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Four years later, he proposed a second bill of rights, arguing that the first attempt neglected a government guarantee of equality in "the pursuit of happiness."
Sometimes the "something memorable" was something everybody later would like to forget, such as Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty," which he introduced in 1964. That war was subsequently lost, but we've been paying for it since.
George W. Bush used his State of the Union speech in 2002 to identify three authentic enemies of the U.S. at that time, North Korea, Iran and Iraq -- "states like these and their terrorist allies constitute an 'axis of evil,' arming to threaten the peace of the world." He took considerable flak from the frightened nursemaids and nervous Nellies for saying it, though recent history has since treated his formulation with a certain sympathy, if not kindness.
Since then, State of the Union orations have devolved into mere laundry lists and presidential letters to Santa, bearing little relevance to anything likely to happen.
FDR should have proclaimed a fifth freedom, the freedom from another State of the Union speech. It would have been an empty promise, but making expensive and expansive promises is what most presidents do.
Nobody expands his promises with expensive abandon quite like Barack Obama. His State of the Union this week was a classic of its kind, delivering nothing of substance, something of value only to the pundits who recycle nothing with greater skill than even the politicians they celebrate. One of them, Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, took note of the coincidence that Mr. Obama's speech fell on the last night of Mardi Gras.
The noisy spendthrift carnival in Washington, unlike the harmless if not always innocent street festival in New Orleans, "is a display of wretched excess," he wrote, "when giddy and rowdy participants give in to reckless and irresponsible behavior. The standoff gives new meaning to Fat Tuesday. The nation's finances are a mess, but let's have another round."
Mr. Obama's letter to Santa Claus is even greedier than usual. He wants a $9-an-hour minimum wage as a stimulus to the sagging economy, though if a $9 minimum will produce prosperity, why not make it $20? (That may be for next year.) He proposes stricter gun control, universal kindergarten for 4-year-olds and a swift rewrite of U.S. immigration law. He promises to cool the globe, or warm the globe, depending on what the White House climatologists are calling changes in the weather this week.
The Obama solution will cost the usual billions, though Congress could accomplish just as much as he could by merely adopting a resolution instructing the weather to behave, and it wouldn't cost anything.
"Minimum wage won't pass the House," Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said on the morning after the president's exercise in Daniel Webster oratory. "Climate-change won't pass the House. Those are things he could probably have a hard time getting a lot of Democrats to vote for." He notes that six of his Democratic colleagues are up for re-election next year in states that Mitt Romney carried, "and they're going to be hard-pressed to vote for" tax increases.
The Constitution requires the president to make a report to Congress, but it doesn't require the empty bombast that accompanies the modern State of the Union. With the precise and economic language of the era, the Constitution says of the president only that "He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."
The rest comes from mere "tradition." This stuff is catching, too. Now across the land there are speeches about the State of the State, the State of the City and even the State of the County. This week, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York applies his golden oratory to a demand that Gotham abolish Styrofoam coffee cups. Next year it could be something actually useful, such as a requirement that everybody wash his socks and change his underwear once a week.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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