In the week leading up to this year’s State of the Union, the question of whether the speech and its rituals still matter seemed to get almost as much air time as the policy proposals the Obama Administration was previewing all over the country. Is the SOTU dead? Did Obama kill it? And what does all of this say about the state of our politics?
Answers: No, no, and the American spirit of adaptation is alive and well. Rather than the end of the State of the Union, what we saw may just have been (with apologies to President Clinton’s 2000 speech, which I helped write) the first 21st-century SOTU.
A week ahead of time, POLITICO’s Edward-Isaac Dovere asked whether the President was killing the State of the Union and answered “sort of.” What this seemed to mean was killing the big reveal – inside Washington, this was the moment on the morning of the speech when the White House press office released its themes and began briefing chosen insiders in the press and policy communities on the contents. Later in the day came , the release of excerpts, which were eagerly passed around, first hand-to-hand and later electronically, among those slated to write or comment on the speech.
Sounds a little like sharing a cigarette before there was vaping, doesn’t it?
For most of the country, the big reveal was always the next morning, when the local newspaper or TV station told you what the President had said while you were watching sports or sitcoms.
Instead, what we got this year just may be the State of the Union equivalent of Joe Biden showing up in your inbox every day promising another chance to win lunch with Barack Obama. News media reported daily on Obama’s key themes for more than a week in advance. For those of us who geek out on policy areas deemed less central to the national narrative – cybersecurity, say, or trade – our specialty publications got previews that we could Tweet and blog about amongst ourselves. And we did.
This year’s speech had a number of additional made-for-Twitter qualities, from subtweeting (dissing someone without using his or her name) to posting the entire text of the speech on Medium ahead of time to the dropping in of words trending in online debates and culture (transgender).
Think of this year’s speech as a Netflix series – House of Cards: SOTU Edition.
For his part in POLITICO, Dovere suggested the SOTU was turning “from a moment into a movement.” But this misses the point. Increasingly we consume media on demand, not on the schedule of the producers. Think of this year’s speech as a Netflix series – House of Cards: SOTU Edition. You could read about the policy proposals, then watch the speech, then listen to the commentary, then read it yourself. Or you could binge-watch it all at once, following along from the pre-released full text, watching on TV and checking out the pundits on blogs or Twitter. Or you could go all meta and follow Twitter without watching the speech, as several commentators I follow kept bragging they were doing.
Writing at Time, Maya Rhodan describes the SOTU as having slipped from the Super Bowl of American political media to the Golden Globes or American Idol. In other words, it’s a major television production with a declining viewership that nonetheless continues to drive conversation on social media. What she fails to note is how much influence those shows still wield in their respective industries, shaping marketing strategies and stars’ career trajectories. Biden and Boehner are the Fey and Poehler of our days. Ernst, McMorris-Rogers, Jindal et al? Those hapless early-round contestants who tried to sing something too big for their voices. Some day, maybe one of them will break out and make it big.
None of this, though, ultimately answers these questions: who watched, and how successful was the strategy in shaping the year’s political conversations? CNN’s quick-reaction polling had 72% of viewers say Obama was taking the country in the right direction – a number you could not match in many coffee shops or think tanks, and one most governors would envy.
Outside the U.S., the rest of the world listens for rhetoric and symbolism in our State of the Union. Global audiences also still read newspapers and more lengthy analyses – and so the coverage abroad looked much as it might have any other year. BBC highlighted Obama’s declaration that the economic crisis is over, striking a discordant note in Europe and the many other regions of the globe whose growth lags behind the United States. France’s Le Monde, still following multiple stories stemming from the recent terror attacks, didn’t fit the speech on its homepage. Israel’s Haaretz, with a 12-victim bus stabbing filling the news, posted video of Obama’s snappy election comeback (“I know because I won both of them”) rather than his rhetoric on Iran, ISIS, or anti-Semitism. Indian outlets noted with pride the presence of an Indian-American Ebola doctor as one of Michelle Obama’s guests, though American wonks critiqued the lack of a mention of the world’s largest democracy shortly before Obama travels there. Russia’s foreign minister described the speech as “a course for confrontation.” None found it worth mentioning that the economic rhetoric had been rolled out in the Midwest a week ago, or the Ebola initiative recycled from last year.
Here at home, dial-polling of independent voters and women organized by Democracy Corps found the two groups, so coveted for 2016, more enthusiastic about proposals that would explicitly benefit them, less so about those that wouldn’t.
Much to the chagrin of this and every speechwriter (and many listeners), the State of the Union is not about gorgeous, soaring rhetoric.
Which brings us to the key point. Much to the chagrin of this and every speechwriter (and many listeners), the State of the Union is not about gorgeous, soaring rhetoric. It’s not about surprising new policy proposals. It’s about three things: tradition and ritual; packaging a year’s themes and picking a year’s battles; and getting in the faces of media, opinion leaders and voters who have a hundred channels of choices to focus on.
Smaller chunks on more channels. Long-form on demand for those who want it. Diffusion of experiences to different platforms, capturing different eyeballs, facilitating arguments and, perhaps, new kinds of agreement. The morning after the State of the Union brought two quite surprising developments in American national security politics. GOP House Speaker John Boehner issued an unprecedented invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress just a month before that country’s hotly-contested election. Liberal Barbara Boxer and libertarian Rand Paul announced they’d join forces to oppose new sanctions on Iran that many of their Senate colleagues are proposing.
Put the State of the Union down in the category of American institutions that technology transforms but doesn’t destroy. And get used to it.