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13 February 2013

The State of the Union(2013) and the Constitution

So, the other day I started to compare the State of the Union address (SOTU) to the Constitution. Only, I was a day early and ended up looking at last year's SOTU. This worked out ok; I got a little side-tracked and shared some fascinating things I've been learning about paper money and our Constitution. Today I'm going to try again, but with the actual 2013 address, again using a transcript from the Washington Post.

Once again, I'll admit my bias and my limitations up front: I don't like Mr. Obama. I think he is very bad for America. I am, however, doing my very best to be even-handed with this. If I find that he needs to be praised for something, I'll do it. If I find that he's doing it wrong, I'll say that too. I am neither Republican nor Democrat; I am a Constitutional Originalist. That is, I think that the Founders got it right, and we should, as a general rule, do it the way they outlined. If we want to make changes, they should be made properly, through the amendment process, and never through usurpation. Doing business by usurpation undermines all our various freedoms and the very concept of Rule of Law.

George Washington: If in the opinion of the People, the distribution or modification of the Constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.
Farewell Address, Sep. 19, 1796

I believe that our Founders were not only good and wise men, but that they were inspired of the Lord when they worked out our government. I am still a student of their writings, though I have been studying for a number of years now, and this comparison is, to the best of my ability and understanding, a comparison to the Founders' original intent.

So. What is the State of the Union. Mr. President?

One of the first things that jumps out at me, looking at this, is that Mr. Obama can scarcely complete a sentence without being interrupted for applause. This bothers me. It's actually one of the reasons why I prefer the transcript over the live speech. Although Mr. Washington gave his SOTUs as speeches, Thomas Jefferson felt that this was too much like the monarchal practice of giving the Speech From the Throne, and he sent a written report to Congress. This was the custom until Woodrow Wilson. Things began changing with the advent of mass media; the Constitutionally mandated information on the state of the union to be addressed to Congress became an address to the people, given in the presence of Congress. (See Wikipedia.) I think it would be advisable to return to a less ceremonial model for this address. It's a set-up nearly guaranteed to give the speaker a big head and exaggerated sense of their own importance. It's also an invitation to indulge in propaganda, rather than the informational, factual reporting that is supposed to be happening. I found this ThinkQuest list of  several specific propaganda techniques, and I will be keeping an eye out to see if Mr. Obama has used any of them in his speech. (To be fair, I would expect to see some or all of them used in most or all SOTU speeches going back at least as far as they've been carried to the People by mass media, and quite probably further back than that. It's not just Mr. Obama that uses propaganda.)

Mr. Obama: Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, fellow Americans, 51 years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this chamber that “the Constitution makes us not rivals for power, but partners for progress.”

Here in the first sentence is something that I would consider propaganda: "the Constitution makes us not rivals for power, but partners for progress." I'd call this a glittering generality. Here's how the ThinkQuest folks describe glittering generalities:

ThinkQuest: Glittering generalities are words that have different positive meaning for individual subjects, but are linked to highly valued concepts. When these words are used, they demand approval without thinking, simply because such an important concept is involved. For example, when a person is asked to do something in "defense of democracy" they are more likely to agree.

The avoidance of being power-hungry, or in Mr. Obama and Mr. Kennedy's words, "rivals for power" is a powerful cultural image, and I have yet to speak to anyone who wanted to impede progress, on any side of the debate. Progress seems to fit exactly the definition of a word that has "different positive meaning for individual subjects, but [is] linked to highly valued concepts." However, if we look at the Constitution itself, the Preamble will tell us what the purpose of the document is:

US Constitution: We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Nowhere in this list does the Constitution claim to be creating partners or promoting any concept as mushy and as poorly defined as "progress." What is "progress," anyway? I rather suspect that the progress I would most like to see -movement toward a small, even tiny, government using an original interpretation of the Constitution- would likely please our president very little, given his previous comments on how the Constitution is a charter of  "negative liberties."

Moving on. It appears that Mr. Obama is still quoting Mr. Kennedy, though the applause has broken the continuity of his thought.

Mr. Obama: “It is my task,” he said, “to report the state of the union.

This is a true statement. His duty to do so is outlined in Article 2 Section 3:

US Constitution: He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measure as he shall judge necessary and expedient; ...

He goes on:

Mr. Obama: “It is my task,” he said, “to report the state of the union. To improve it is the task of us all.”
Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, there is much progress to report. After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home.

To improve our union... I'm thinking this is more propaganda, another glittering generality. While Article I Section 8 does lay out a number of specific powers which are to be employed to "promote the general welfare," It is my opinion that promoting or encouraging the overall health or "general welfare" is considerably different from making actual improvements. It seems to me that improvements should be the exclusive territory of the private sector.

It is notable that Mr. Obama announced the "end" of the war last year in his SOTU address, and in very similar terms. It also seams like a stretch to me to call it a war at all, since Congress declined to declare war on anyone, and the declaration of war is their exclusive prerogative. (See Article I Section 8) Certainly the Commander-in-Chief can order troops around, even in the absence of a declaration, which has been done from time to time since the beginning of our nation. The first instance that I am aware of is the conflict with the Barbary Pirates at the beginning of Thomas Jefferson's presidency. According to Wikipedia's article on the conflict:

Wikipedia: In response, "Jefferson sent a small force to the area to protect American ships and citizens against potential aggression, but insisted that he was 'unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense.'" He told Congress: "I communicate [to you] all material information on this subject, that in the exercise of this important function confided by the Constitution to the Legislature exclusively their judgment may form itself on a knowledge and consideration of every circumstance of weight." Although Congress never voted on a formal declaration of war, they did authorize the President to instruct the commanders of armed American vessels to seize all vessels and goods of the Pasha of Tripoli "and also to cause to be done all such other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war will justify."

Maybe it's splitting hairs, but I think we should make a linguistic distinction between an actual, official, declared war, and a conflict we participate in without ever bothering to properly define. I think it is also worthy of note that Congress did act, and did authorize the actions Mr. Jefferson took. I don't know one way or the other if Mr. Bush either sought or received any similar authorization for the various conflicts which he started and Mr. Obama continued. I do know that Congress has enacted a couple laws which abdicate their responsibility for war to the president; it's just the sort of power-gathering that Washington warned against in his Farewell Address:

George Washington: It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free Country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its Administration, to confine themselves within their respective Constitutional Spheres; avoiding in the exercise of the Powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power; by dividing and distributing it into different depositories, & constituting each the Guardian of the Public Weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient & modern; some of them in our country & under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them.

And, I think that will do for today. I didn't make it very far into the speech, but hopefully I can have a look again soon, and get a bit further then.


Anne Chovies said...

Gotta confess I'm not very fond of Obama either. I agree he has not been good for the country. Here's a link to something I saw today on the current subject. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/george-will-the-state-of-the-union-farce/2013/02/15/f97ffd32-76e2-11e2-95e4-6148e45d7adb_story.html?hpid=z2

Ritsumei said...

I'd have to agree with the article. I like the term they use: "presidency worship." That's just about right. He's one person, and Constitutionally speaking, his job description isn't very large.


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