Has the State of the Union Address Become Obsolete?

Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to be political in nature. I am not interested in discussing or debating the performance of any particular POTUS, past or present, nor is the content of tonight’s State of the Union (SOTU) address at all relevant here. I have written this piece without having watched, heard or read about the 2014 SOTU and it is intended purely as a commentary on the relevance of the tradition itself. Please respect the context and engage in political trolling elsewhere.

Earlier today, I received an eager instant message from a colleague:

“So, are you excited about tonight???”

I paused, mentally trying to determine what pre-arranged happy hour or otherwise important professional social gathering I’d forgotten about. Failing, I asked what he was referring to.

“The State of the Union!”  he replied, with all of the exuberance that can be implied via instant message.

I sighed, and confessed to my deflated friend that not only was I not excited about the prospect of the delivery of the State of the Union Address, that I was not planning on watching it and that I had not even remembered the occasion was occurring tonight or that it occurred, ever. The statement sounded odd to me even as I wrote it; there was a time not so long ago when this speech was meaningful enough for me to ensure that I was firmly planted on my couch, remote in hand, CNN blazing in the foreground from 9pm -10pm EST. I went to bed eager to debate the finer points of the material the following morning with my friends and colleagues. And yet, at some indistinguishable point, it ceased to be relevant for me.

It’s not that I’ve grown old and apathetic; it’s not that I’m too lazy or too self-centered to be concerned with the happenings of the world around me. It certainly cannot be said that I don’t feel any concern for the state of my nation. It’s just that I don’t expect to learn about it from this speech.

I pose a question here, rather than a statement, because I’m genuinely interested in differing perspectives: Has the State of the Union address become obsolete? Reflect with me on the original intent of the practice, which has arisen from these specific instructions to the POTUS in the U.S. Constitution:

“He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary an expedient.”

– Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution

According to the Congressional Research Service, the first SOTU was delivered by President George Washington on January 8, 1790, and every president since Woodrow Wilson has delivered their report in the form of a speech to a joint session of Congress. Presumably, the address was designed to share important information with an audience that may not be already aware of it. But putting the need for the occasional congressional pomp and circumstance aside, does this practice really make sense in 2014?

Considering the speed at which information is transmitted and the innumerable platforms it is broadcasted through, people living today have access to enough data to continually and consistently draw their own conclusions about the overall state of the union. All one must do to learn the particular views of the POTUS on the matter is to follow him or her (being optimistic that I will be able to use that pronoun in my lifetime) on Twitter and one will receive several SOTUs per day in easily digestible bites of 140 characters or less. When news is now dated in a matter of minutes, can we still gain value from an address that we must wait a year to receive? Is even a single fact revealed during the course of the SOTU that cannot be learned in an instant from a simple Google search?

The SOTU is reminiscent for me of an annual review. My boss and trusted mentor told me upon the occasion of my first impending review that if anything we discussed in the meeting was a surprise to me, it would mean that at some point during the year, he had failed. “If I’m doing my job,” he said, “you’ll always know how you’re doing.” For 6 years, my annual review has been a summary of our many recent conversations. I learn nothing I didn’t already know, but it’s an opportunity for dialogue, a chance to reexamine topics we’ve already addressed and to reflect on where we go from here.

Perhaps that’s what the SOTU is meant to be today – not a vehicle to share new and previously unknown information, but an opportunity to reflect, to inspire focused dialogue around topics we are already aware of, but haven’t found a resolution to. I welcome any debate in your comments – what does the SOTU mean to you?

11 thoughts on “Has the State of the Union Address Become Obsolete?

  1. I agree. They should find some (good) website guys to build a state of the union dashboard SOTUD. Of course it would be a ghastly collection of widgets, all blinking red. Or, we would have to have separate versions for the President and the opposition party. In any case, I watched WVU eke out a 2-pt victory over Baylor last night – a much better use of my time.

    1. I love the idea of the dashboard with real-time insight into the most important economic and cultural indicators. Of course, we can glean these painfully by crawling dozens of individual official websites, but to gather them in one place might inspire more people to take an interest. I do fear, however, that the debate over who would be objective enough to manage the site and the Act of Congress required to create the new government agency that would probably be necessary to develop and maintain it would not resolve within our lifetime.

  2. I’d like to see a slidedeck — a la an Apple presentation. Maybe add a little video. Our society has changed from long speeches; it’s time the SOTU get refreshed to the 21st century.

    1. Dan, I agree! The SOTU would be far more interesting if it was something we looked forward to with all the fervor of a Steve Jobs era Apple Keynote. “And one more thing…”

  3. You have raised a very interesting question. I am Australian and I found myself having more interest in the speech than many of my American Friends.

    I often find myself moseying into international legislation, politics and policies, goings on as I find it fascinating and a wonderful way to educate oneself when working within the community development field.

    When I consider many of US friends reactions (or lack there of) I think some of that is because they feel so disconnected from what is happening around them…The onslaught of media and lack of respect and importance based on the presidential position itself (whoever may be in it) I think that would also have had an effect and is partly responsible for the ‘dwindling down’ of how significant it is to people.

    1. Miss Lou, that’s a very good point. I did wonder last night if the address had more or less significance to people living outside of the U.S. It is ironic to think that when we have more information available to us than ever, it seems even easier to feel completely disconnected from what is happening around us. Thanks for taking the time to read this and to share your perspective!

      1. I listen to the ABC News here in Australia (rather than commercial ad filled radio) and there was discussion on the address for more than 10 minutes – it took up more than 1 third of the 30 minute news slot and that is unusual for even mainstream political election result news here in Australia!!.. lol

        1. I feel jealous! I would give anything to have our media forced to limit their commentary to 10 minutes and have to fill those 10 minutes with meaningful, factual and relevant analysis. We endured three straight days of nearly 24 hour news coverage on every TV channel and all over social media just leading up to the speech, speculating on the potential content, then the same barrage of post-speech commentary and analysis. When you boil it down, a great deal of time is spent not saying much of substance.

          1. P.s: I have to admit I was SICK of pre election banter through the media before the recent election.

            Every other media platform (not the ABC) was spewing out everything but the policy facts and driving those of us who inform ourselves before voting absolutely nuts!

  4. I am going to say I still want to hear what the President says, since I am less likely to get my own opinion formed from someone else’s version. I think if we don’t listen then it is like soneone, maybe JFK said, (If you are not part of the solution) we become part of the problem.
    I have been appalled at how people talk about our current president in such derogatory terms. The lack of respect bothers me, Faith. It doesn’t matter which party you are in, or “who” he or she is, once elected i wish people would try to find the positives. I tell coworkers, in a workplace that offered lunch in a large conference room and a longer lunch hour, out of 200 people only 15 showed up to see the Inauguration. If it were school and a mandatory assembly most people would get detention! 🙂
    Check out Beth Byrnes blog for a good, deep conversation on politics, Faith.

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