Ninety years ago today, on December 6, 1932, President Herbert Hoover sent his fourth and final State of the Union message to Congress. “In accord with my constitutional duty, I transmit herewith to the Congress information upon the state of the Union together with recommendation of measures for its consideration,” Hoover wrote. Yes, Hoover delivered his State of the Union messages to Congress in writing; the Constitution only requires the President to report to Congress, not to make a public speech. Before Hoover, few Presidents gave State of the Union speeches in front of Congress, though there were exceptions; in 1913, Woodrow Wilson was the first President in over a century to do so. Harding followed his example, but Coolidge and Hoover returned to the traditional written message. It was FDR who started the modern practice of the annual speech before a joint session of Congress, though even he did not do so every year.
Hoover framed his State of the Union messages as non-partisan, administrative tasks. He liked to think he was setting aside politics for the good of the entire nation. But one thing Hoover was not, and that was theatrical. He was not going to put on a show in front of Congress, and he saw a traditional written State of the Union message as a way to demonstrate that he was above politics.
The timing of Hoover’s final State of the Union is noteworthy – four weeks earlier, Hoover had lost the 1932 Presidential election to Franklin D. Roosevelt in a landslide. “While we have recently engaged in the aggressive contest of a national election,” Hoover remarked in his message to Congress, “its very tranquility and the acceptance of its results furnish abundant proof of the strength of our institutions.” Hoover was a “lame duck,” with three more months to serve until the inauguration. Making matters worse, in those days Congress met only from December to March; they were expected to wrap up legislation for the entire year before the new President entered office.
Defending his Administration’s record, Hoover told Congress, “The unparalleled world-wide economic depression has continued through the year. Due to the European collapse, the situation developed during last fall and winter into a series of most acute crises. The unprecedented emergency measures enacted and policies adopted undoubtedly saved the country from economic disaster. After serving to defend the national security, these measures began in July to show their weight and influence toward improvement of conditions in many parts of the country. The measures and policies which have procured this turn toward recovery should be continued until the depression is passed, and then the emergency agencies should be promptly liquidated.”
Despite the improving economic situation, Hoover saw three urgent emergencies in need of immediate response:
1. The soaring Federal budget deficit, which at the time was believed to be slowing economic recovery.
2. The shaky banking system in the U.S., from which nervous depositors were withdrawing their money from even the soundest banks, thereby drying up credit vital for economic activity.
3. The crumbling international financial system, undermined by the immense debts and reparations left over from World War I.
Congress for the most part refused to act, and Hoover’s repeated entreaties fell on deaf ears. With no political capital left to spend, Hoover even asked Roosevelt for help. What Hoover really wanted, of course, was for Roosevelt to endorse at least some of Hoover’s recommendations, but as the weeks passed and the economy deteriorated, Hoover begged for any word from Roosevelt that would prompt Congress to do something. Roosevelt, sensing that his struggling predecessor was trying to tie his hands, remained silent. When Roosevelt was inaugurated in March 1933, the banking system was near total collapse, and unemployment had reached 25%. Roosevelt immediately called a special session of Congress to address the emergencies — instead of going home, they finally went to work. They passed legislation at a frenzied pace, in some cases without even reading the bills put before them. Over the next 100 days Congress enacted more than a dozen landmark bills, including the Economy Act (to reduce the deficit) and the Emergency Banking Act (to address the banking crisis) that Hoover had so desperately requested weeks earlier.