Is the State of the Union still a “thing”?

By Kati Seeman

Presidents are great with speeches, but the traditional means of communication have made it more of a challenge for the White House not only to keep up, but also to stay relevant. Television still has its place as part of what Drake alum and now fully employed adult Noelle Smith of Edelman described the four leaf clover of public relations. However, the way in which the White House and the press can utilize television as an avenue of publicity has been altered and sometimes detoured altogether. 

Whenever the President gets airtime, networks lose money. According to Politico, Bill Clinton drew in a record 67 million viewers during his SOTU in 1992 when the big three still had considerable control over the entertainment industry. However, the 2015 speech is estimated to not even reach half of this viewership. Even during his first SOTU, Obama only reached 52 million people. The entertainment industry has several alternatives to watching another Obama speech, and I know many that are more invested in what Frank Underwood will do with control of the White House in Season 3 of House of Cards.

The interaction between the White House and the press has changed dramatically over the last half century. Rather than having prepared questions and cookie-cutter answers, the media is more focused on unfiltered direct messaging. This is significantly different from the days when the press room was new, conferences were off the record, and questions were pre-approved. JFK even got to ask for a re-do on September 9, 1963 during an interview with NBC. This would be completely unheard of today.

Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address is coming up, but the President has been releasing teasers before the speech set to take place on January 20, 2015. Some view this pre-disclosure as part of a way to not only increase the hype for the speech, but also to make it more of a movement rather than of just another moving speech that doesn’t lead to any results. There are mixed reviews on whether an effective speech actually impacts public opinion with many pointing to Reagan’s moving theatrics that failed to move the public opinion needle. How much have we really seen improve from last year to this year? Out of Congress, not much. Out of the White House, an expansion of presidential power through the use of executive orders. Obama will no doubt remind Congress that he is still around for these remaining two years, but aside from a veto threat to the 114th Congress he has given teasers about economic initiatives such as free community college and improvements to cyber security.

Regardless of the speech’s content, there is still the potential for the policy recommendations to fall on deaf ears. Women were the central focus of the 2014 address, but without any action following the SOTU the administration failed to walk the walk. In order for the 2015 SOTU to actually shake things up and have an impact on the American people, Obama can’t just talk about it, he has to be about it.

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