This political city has snapped awake. Congress is back, the football season is over, the presidential election has begun. And we have one more State of the Union address. Charles A. Beard called this ''the one great public document of the United States which is widely read and discussed.''Skip to next paragraph
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The Founding Fathers conceived of the separation of powers as something in which the primary responsibility for lawmaking rested with Congress: The President's function was to be chief executive and law enforcer. But now the success of a president is measured by his batting average: how many times at bat , how many hits against the opposition in Congress. This score card rating is comparatively modern. It was Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt who established the role of the president as prime mover in setting up the legislative agenda.
Twenty years ago political scientist Seymour Fersh wrote, ''In times of crisis Congress has recognized its inability to provide unified leadership and has delegated powers to the President to extricate the nation from difficulties.'' That was true the day before yesterday. But now we seem to be in a state of chronic stalemate. More than half the time political control is divided in Washington. Everyone is concerned about today's $200 billion deficit, but who is responsible in a period of deadlock? A generation ago Mr. Fersh wrote , ''With the advent of chronic crises more and more people are looking with increased frequency to the White House for direction.'' The stalemate was visible a generation ago; the situation here this foggy week emphasized it.
The State of the Union speech is an art form of imagination and skill. Few things bring back the past so wistfully as dipping into past speeches. Here is Grover Cleveland in 1887 saying, ''It is a condition that confronts us, not a theory.'' Warren Harding told the nation he was going to let up the pressure; there would be no ''encroachment upon the functions of Congress.'' He would be brief: ''I must not risk the wearying of your patience with detailed references.''
Other excerpts: Calvin Coolidge (1923) - ''What the country requires is not so much new policies as a steady continuation of those which are already being crowned with such abundant success.''
Poor Hoover, after the 1929 crash - ''I am opposed to any direct or indirect government dole. Our people are providing against distress from unemployment in true American fashion. . . .'' That was 1931.
On Jan. 3, 1934, Franklin Delano Roosevelt appeared in person (the first president to do so since 1923). It was a survey of the startling innovations he had set in motion. A year later he used the message to announce the ''Second New Deal.'' He had a nationwide audience at prime time and made a spirited and partisan presentation. International affairs were intruding: In 1943 he devoted half his talk to the war effort.
Harry Truman, in January of 1946, sent up simultaneously a State of the Union message and the annual budget, amounting to 25,000 words, which was too big for most papers. In 1947 his annual message was the first ever televised. In less than 50 years the US had moved from the wings of world affairs to center stage.
I have heard a number of these speeches sitting in the House press gallery, looking down on the head of the speaker. I remember how Ike electrified the audience in 1953 when he announced that he was ''unleashing the Seventh Fleet!'' (What a roar.) What did it mean? It sounded fine, but it was a little hard even then to catch its significance. But he sounded the recurrent theme of presidents in another field: ''The first order of business,'' he said mournfully, ''is the elimination of the annual deficit.'' How often we have heard that.