Obama's Joint Session Blunder
The controversy over President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress underscores his ignorance of history, his lack of understanding regarding the Constitution, and how lacking he is in political skills other than speechifying. Voters seem to instinctively understand which issues transcend partisan politics and thus are appropriate for a presidential address before a joint session of Congress. They also have a history of not responding well when that venue is misused. Giving a political stump speech before a joint session of Congress is simply not being presidential.
We are most familiar with the annual rite of the president's State of the Union address, with its stylized partisanship. In addition, the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution mandates that the electoral votes for president be counted before a joint session of Congress. Diplomatic courtesy has long honored the practice of allowing an important foreign head of state or government to address the nation by speaking before a joint session of Congress. Finally, great Americans -- alive and dead alike -- may also be honored by a special joint session of Congress. These are the acceptable reasons for Congress to meet in a joint session. When a president addresses the nation from inside the U.S. Capitol on any other occasion, he is expected to speak on matters of genuine national importance, not partisan advantage. This is because under our Constitution's system of separation of powers, a president has to be invited to come to Capitol Hill and speak.
The State of the Union address evolved from the command in Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution.
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.
"Time to time" was quickly interpreted to mean an annual report. Many early presidents made this report in writing, but by the early 20th century, it became standard practice for the president to speak on the State of the Union before a joint session of Congress. It is now also a tradition that in lieu of a State of the Union address, a newly inaugurated president will address a joint session of Congress shortly after he assumes office with an outline of his first-term agenda billed as an economic or budget address. A far less happy tradition has also developed. Truman, Johnson, and Ford each addressed a joint session of Congress after being sworn in upon the death or resignation of their predecessors.
Outside the annual State of the Union address and transitions of power, presidents have pretty much limited their addresses before a joint session of Congress to major issues of national security. Examples include FDR's A day that shall live in infamy speech after Pearl Harbor, FDR again on the Yalta Conference in the closing days of WWII, Truman announcing the Marshall Plan, Carter announcing SALT II, and Reagan's report on the Geneva summit.
The man the press has been trying to compare Obama to as a communicator made only three special joint session addresses to Congress in eight years. In addition to the Geneva summit address, Ronald Reagan also spoke on Central America in April, 1983. Reagan's April 1981 speech before a joint session was billed as an address on the economy, but the real purpose was to reassure both Congress and the nation that Reagan was capable of fulfilling the duties of the office after the assassination attempt a month earlier. That address is a minor masterpiece of sound economic policies, genuine bipartisanship, and grace under pressure -- commodities I suspect will be in short supply next Thursday night.
George H.W. Bush made two special addresses to Congress in four years. One was on the need to go to war to reverse Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the other announced victory in that war. Bill Clinton made only one special address to Congress in eight years. In September 1993, Clinton urged the joint session of Congress to pass his health care plan. Congress preferred to listen to the voters instead. The plan failed, Democrats lost control of Congress, and Clinton decided that he had better ways to move his agenda forward. For the rest of his two terms he confined his appearances before Congress to State of the Union addresses. George W. Bush also made only one special address to a joint session of Congress in eight years. On September 20, 2001 he announced the War on Terror in response to the attacks on September 11.
On September 9, 2009 Barack Obama addressed a joint session of Congress on health care. His address was no more successful than Clinton's in swaying the voters, but Congress charged ahead anyway. Less than two years later, having lost control of the House and with his poll numbers sinking fast, Obama now plans on speaking again. As Clinton learned, the track record of presidents using a special joint session of Congress to promote domestic policy proposals is not that great. No one remembers Nixon's 1971 speech on the economy or Carter's 1977 address on energy as great moments in political oration. Nor does Congress take kindly to being scolded by a guest in its own chambers.
It is noteworthy that FDR, another president revered for his ability to sway public opinion, once attempted to do just that. In 1935 FDR used his first special address to a joint session of Congress as the venue to deliver his veto of the popular WWI veteran's bonus act. While the Senate sustained that veto, a few months later Congress sent FDR a message. When an almost identical bill passed a second time, a congressman took the bill, rushed out of the Capitol, hailed a taxi, and hand-delivered it to the White House, daring a second veto. That veto was handily overridden, and for his remaining decade in office, FDR limited his requests to address a special session of Congress to issues of national security.
It is true that Truman addressed the so-called "do nothing" Congress on domestic issues in a joint session in July 1948 and then came from behind to win reelection, but 1948 was one of the most unusual presidential election years in American history. Truman had not been elected to the office, and both his style and his social background were poles apart from those of the man he replaced. He did not enjoy FDR's relationship with many in the national press, who often treated him as a temporary place-keeper until another member of the East Coast establishment could take over. The Democrats were badly divided that election, with not one, but two splinter candidates that year. Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace had been FDR's vice president before he was replaced by Truman in 1944, and Strom Thurmond's candidacy was the Southern Democrat response to the growing power of Northern Democrats like Hubert Humphrey, who led the 1948 platform fight on Civil Rights. The Republicans were incredibly complacent in the face of this disarray among their opponents. Thomas Dewey ran one of the most lackadaisical presidential campaigns in memory, while the Republican Congress failed to connect with the concerns of many returning GIs. Several historic bills had been passed by that "do nothing" Congress, but they were mostly related to the growing Cold War, containing communism, and business interests. Domestic matters such as new housing were high on the list of voter concerns.
What Truman did in his whistle stop campaign was, in effect, to introduce himself firsthand to voters in America's heartland in the age before television. Many were pleasantly surprised to see that he was very much one of their own -- a plain-spoken Middle-Westerner who hadn't particularly sought great ambition but who eagerly accepted the responsibility and who offered commonsense solutions.
If anything, Obama's situation is almost the opposite of Truman's. Obama has long dwelt inside the cocoon of Ivy League-educated experts bereft of common sense, and if anything, he has been massively overexposed in the media. Since 2004, the press has been extolling Obama's intelligence, wisdom, and first-rate temperament at every opportunity. Many voters took Obama at the media's estimation of his skills in 2008. The record increasingly suggests that in fact, Obama possess none of these traits. The patented Obama partisan speech with its straw men, false choices, blame-shifting, and self-aggrandizement in the very heart of representative democracy is likely to only make more people realize what a terrible mistake they made in 2008.