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?