Gregory Korte, usatoday.com
WASHINGTON — My fellow Americans: The state of the
State of the Union address is, well, not as strong as it used to be.
Only 31.7 million people watched last year's hour-long speech on cable and network television — about half as many who watched in 1993.
What they saw was a more partisan spectacle, in which most of the applause comes from just one side of the aisle. Those who follow along on social media get barraged with instant response from both parties, rarely allowing the president to finish a thought before starting an online debate.
Three Supreme Court justices and a handful of members of Congress have boycotted the event in the Obama era. And although it didn't technically happen at a State of the Union address (it was another joint session of Congress in 2009), South Carolina Rep.
Joe Wilson's exclamation of "You lie!" is perhaps better remembered than anything President Obama has said in his annual speech.
Those trends — which began before Obama became president and have continued over the last seven years — makes the challenge for Obama and his speechwriters all the more difficult as Obama delivers his last official State of the Union address of his presidency on Tuesday.
"I'd say the State of the Union address is broken," said
Andrei Cherny, a former speechwriter in the Clinton White House and founding editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. "The reason it’s broken is both a fracturing of the media landscape, but also the polarization we see today. There's a seesaw effect of half the chamber at any given time sitting on their hands, and the other half applauding."
And in the last quarter of Obama's presidency, that partisanship is particularly acute. The Republicans who control Congress can simply wait out the president in 2016 in favor of what hope will be a Republican administration in 2017. And so with his legislative agenda facing a daunting future, the White House has promised a "non-traditional" speech that will "look beyond the next election."
Cherny said he thinks the key to bringing back interest in the State of the Union would be to force Congress to vote up-or-down on the president's major policy proposals.
"The State of the Union is not an inaugural address. It’s not meant to be a big-picture vision. It’s part of governing the country," he said. "In an era when there's not a lot of things getting done in government, changing the way people think about the State of the Union address is a way to supercharge that element of governance, to return it to its place where we focus the attention not only of the country, but the people in the room who can actually address the problems this country faces.
Others are skeptical that it can ever return to the essential forum it was throughout most of the 20th century.
"I don’t know that the State of the Union is a context that can truly be saved. And I say that because the problem is not the State of the Union address. It’s the ability to unilaterally capture the attention of the American public," said Josh Pasek, who studies communication at the University of Michigan Center for Political Studies.
That's because there are just too many channels dividing the American attention. When President Lyndon Johnson first took the address to prime-time television in 1965, most viewers had access to only three channels. Now there are hundreds — not including a near-infinite number of options on Netflix and other streaming services.
"There's no place to reasonably go to say, 'Hey, there's something important that you should really focus your attention on, and here's the place for us all to gather to do it,'" he said. "You can do that better with an
Amber alert than you can with a State of the Union in the contemporary era."
But the White House is not willing to give up on what White House Press Secretary
Josh Earnest called "the grandest stage in American politics."
In an attempt to recapture some of the lost television audience, Obama's media team is working to put the State of the Union address on more new media platforms. This year, for the first time, it will be available live and on demand on Amazon video. The White House launched a
Snapchat account on Monday, and it will use the annotation platform Genius to provide deeper information and commentary on parts of the president's speech.
Obama administration will continue the tradition of a post-State of the Union road trip, in which the speech will form the basis for more speeches in Nebraska, Louisiana and Michigan over the next two weeks. Starting Wednesday, Obama is dispatching his Cabinet to cities across America to follow up on the themes of the speech.
"There's no denying that this exercise has changed, but I don't think that makes it any less important," Earnest said Monday. "And I think that even in the midst of the swirl of television ads and YouTube videos and tweets and everything else, that having a moment where everybody's focused on one speech, I think, is probably a pretty good thing — both for the country, but also for the political debate."