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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The State of the Union Address: The Presidency as Visionary or Bureaucratic Leadership?

Just after President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address, CNN found that among the Americans who had watched the speech, 76 percent had a “ total positive” reaction, 44 percent of which being “very positive,” and 22 percent had a negative reaction.[1] What is left unsaid can be even more useful than what is reported. In this case, the poll does not reveal the criteria used by the respondents to assess the speech. The devil lies in the details here, in not only the actual criteria used, but also the very content of the speech. In this essay, I investigate the suitability of the criterion that can be labeled “extent of detail in the speech,” given the purpose of the speech as laid out in the U.S. Constitution and, moreover, the presidential office.


In his 2014 address, Barak Obama stayed largely away from “the vision thing.” This point is significant to the extent that “presiding over the whole” is an important feature of his office. Even realistic bipartisan legislative items, such as immigration and trade reform, received only cursory mention. This is understandable, given the gridlock that had made 2013 one of the least productive Congresses in U.S. history. Under the circumstances, the president could have done worse than lean on his constitutional obligation “to give to the Congress information of the state of the Union.” Pursuing this tract may have given the president (and the office) more reputational capital (e.g., standing above the fray; not being partisan). Sadly, he truncated that duty to sell his executive actions to a weary citizenry and Congress. In other words, like presidents before him, Barak Obama chose to make the speech fit almost exclusively within the second part of the constitutional obligation—to “recommend to [Congress’s] consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”[2] To be sure, he did push a few “incrementalist” legislative proposals, such as increasing the minimum wage a few dollars and extending unemployment compensation three months. Unfortunately, the public seemed to recognize the partisan nature of these “agenda items.”

Perhaps the main thrust of the address fell on announcements of, and justifications for executive actions, including tightening industrial carbon-emission limits, increasing the minimum wage that federal contractors would have to pay their workers as a condition of accepting contracts in the future, and providing a new retirement-savings device for any employees without an employer-based plan. The White House readily admitted the diminished returns afforded by executive orders relative to legislation. “I wouldn’t tell you that executive action is a substitute for major bipartisan legislation; it’s not,” Dan Pfeiffer, a senior advisor to the president, admitted.[3]

The implication that the state of the Union hinged on such “micro” measures somehow escaped the notice of viewers, the media, and the political elite. By the time the president got to his “achievement” in having secured the voluntary agreement of several CEOs not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed, he was past even the encroachments of the recommendations part. The showcasing of hand-picked people in the gallery entirely bypasses the constitutional purpose of the report and recommendations.

To be sure, Barak Obama was hardly alone among U.S. presidents in steering the address toward partisan recommendations. In fact, by the time of the 2014 address, most Americans probably expected a partisan list of proposals. His contribution may have been in moving the de facto standard for what counts as a State of the Union Address even further along in terms future expectations of presidents using the address to sell their respective agendas. In the context of legislative gridlock and perhaps even a media-fomented general sense that the stuff of visionary leadership must finally bow down to American pragmatism in the era of managerialism, the president’s addition of executive actions took the address even further from the “big picture” inherent in the condition of the Union itself—that is to say, further away from transformational and visionary leadership and closer to bureaucratic and politicized management. This is bad news for the presidency if the presiding role of the office (e.g., looking out for the good of the whole systemically) is as much a part of the job as are commanding the military and acting as chief executive.

Burns’ distinction between transactional and transformational leadership may shed some light here. Burns classifies both types under moral leadership in his definitive work, Leadership.[4] The transactional leader takes the followers’ needs as given and attends, via particular (i.e., incrementalist) transactions with the followers, to the extant lower needs already preoccupying the followers as well as the leader (e.g., raising the minimum wage). In contrast, the transformational leader raises, or transforms, the needs that the followers consider the most important to higher, distinctively moral, needs that would transform both the followers and the leader, even if merely in looking at a problem in a new light (i.e., through the lenses of a novel paradigm). It should come as no surprise that “the vision thing” and charisma have great value in transformational leadership and none at all in the transactional sort. For example, the president could have inserted his recommendation for a raise in the minimum wage within a vision of sustenance as a fundamental, and thus unconditional, human right. The transformation would involve raising the perceived need at issue from that of negotiating a new conditional set of terms for domestic food aid (“food stamps”) and a maximum in unemployment compensation to replacing that mindset among leaders and followers alike with one that is rooted and justified in basic (i.e., unconditional) human rights.

In conclusion, the gradual shift in emphasis that has gone virtually unnoticed at the societal level as Americans have critiqued State of the Union addresses is “the canary in the coal mine” already letting us know that both the presiding and related non-partisan leadership roles of the U.S. presidency are well on their way to extinction. Unfortunately, many Americans seem to have been pegging their assessment criteria to what the address itself has become—even if this means validating successive presidential lapses. Lest shirking the presiding and “big picture” leadership roles of the office in favor of getting as much of a partisan agenda put into law as possible is not sufficiently narcissistic, the presumptuousness involved in feeling free to “tweak” the office in a more convenient direction surely suffices. Yet such gradual moves effectively evade notice as if by stealth.

I submit for your wise consideration, therefore, the following question: Is democracy unknowingly susceptible to death by increments? If so, republics may be destined by the fates, or, more likely, inherent design to unwittingly suffer a prolonged decline without any awareness that the anchors are being gradually moved down the hill. The lack of recognition that the markers have been moved means that the new positions are taken to be the old default. Accordingly, no serial decline is discerned; no “big picture” vision that is historically as well as idealistically informed breaks through the ice, as the marker on what counts as leadership has shifted too over time. It is difficult to follow the bread crumbs if they are being eaten by birds. By yet another analogy, the state of the Union might include the point that we are skiing downhill in “white-out” conditions, utterly clueless as to where we, the self-governing people (ideally), are going until it is too late.

See "The State of the Union Address: The Presidency as Presiding or Partisan?" in The Essence of Leadership, which is available at Amazon in print and as an ebook.



1. Ariel Edwards-Levy and Mark Blumenthal, “State of the Union Poll Gives Obama Positive Marks,” The Huffington Post, January 29, 2014.
2. The U.S. Constitution, Article 2, Section 3.
3.Susan Page, “Speech-wise: What a Difference [a] Year Makes,” USA Today, January 29, 2014.
4. James M. Burns, Leadership (New York: HarperCollins, 1978).