Obama’s Joint Session Blunder

Obama’s Joint Session Blunder

By Rosslyn
Smith

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.

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