The State of the Union Address used to be the State of the Union letter, thanks, in part, to John Baird’s only having invented television more than a century into our nation’s existence. But even at the outset, the State of the Union was actually just “the state of the union,” listed in Article II of the Constitution in the spirit of a job requirements listing on a Craigslist help-wanted ad. The president, it reads, shall “from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union,” and also deal with ambassadors, and obey the law, and also be proficient in Microsoft Office.
In 1789, it was perhaps useful to remind the president of the importance of keeping Congress (then numbering fewer than 100 people) up to speed on what was happening in the nation on the whole. The utility of that has declined significantly, what with Twitter and so on. Woodrow Wilson began the idea of giving those updates as a speech; Franklin Roosevelt made the State of the Union a spectacle. And once a spectacle is begun in Washington, D.C., it’s got inertia.
By now, President Obama knows that there’s no utility to it. His poll numbers haven’t been helped by the speech; on average, his approval as measured by Gallup has been a point lower the week after his addresses, compared to the week prior. That’s not only a function of decreased viewership, since poll numbers have long been immune to SOTU boosts. But viewership is down, even over the last two decades. In 1994, Bill Clinton’s State of the Union appeared on four networks and was watched by 45.8 million people according to Nielsen; in 2014, Obama was on 13 networks and seen by 33.3 million — even though the country had added more than 50 million people in the interim.
Even since 1994, the world has changed. Obama is eager for his ideas to be heard by the public that he’s embraced the fragmentation of the media, announcing his community college plan with a Vine and Facebook for his immigration action. After Tuesday’s speech, he’ll take questions from a category of people known as “YouTube stars,” one of whom is fond of green lipstick and whose 2012 video of her choking on cinnamon has been viewed 42 million times. (If you don’t feel like doing the math, that’s 126 percent of Obama’s live 2014 SOTU audience.)
That’s why we continue with the State of the Union Address. It gives the president an excuse to talk about his policy priorities, but he certainly doesn’t need to gather everyone together in the Capitol to do that. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell already knows (and has likely already dismissed) Obama’s key policy goals — immigration, community colleges — even without Obama’s big address. We have the speech because the speech is a Tradition and that Tradition reflects the Importance of the Office. So Obama walks onto the House floor, passing through an effusive crowd of legislators as they imagine themselves making that same walk, and the Great Spectacle of Washington is upheld.
Obama spent the last month doing everything in his power to do what he wanted while sidestepping the people he’ll be addressing on Tuesday. But still he’ll get in his car at the White House — Wolf Blitzer commenting in hushed tones over the live shot of him doing so — and trek to Capitol Hill. Because this is what happens in Washington, D.C. — because this is what has happened in Washington, D.C., and, let’s face it, politicians don’t come here to upset the apple cart. They come here to polish the right apples.