For one thing, it’s really long. Imagine if a friend asked you to sit quietly for nearly an hour while he spoke with great detail and flourish about his many plans for the year ahead. Probably not, right? This is a speech that doesn’t seem like the best fit for a public whose attention span are 140 characters and pictures that disappear in ten seconds.
When you have to cover every issue from pre-K to natural gas to Iran in a single speech, it’s also difficult to do justice to any one topic. President Obama always wanted the speech to “sing,” as he put it, but he also spent hours ensuring the argument for each issue was carefully, logically constructed. Yet, even when presidents do make a strong case for a particular piece of legislation, there’s little evidence that rhetorical persuasion leads to congressional action. After all, it’s not as if House Republicans have been waiting for just the right words from Barack Obama in order to finally move on immigration reform that both parties in the Senate have already voted for.
There is some evidence that a State of the Union can help move public opinion. The president always asked us to write the speech with the American people as the most important audience in mind, and we’d find that most of the individual policy proposals tested highly favorably with focus groups of independent voters. Presidents have also been known to receive a small bump in their approval ratings following the address. But those bumps are often ephemeral, and tend to disappear as soon as our attention is turned to the next political gaffe or media freak-out.
I have worked on five State of the Union addresses, and they never get easier. The President starts thinking about this speech in late November, and each year, he would begin with a few bold pronouncements: “This will not be a laundry list!” and “This one will be shorter than all the rest!” By the weekend before, we’d be cutting furiously, fending off additions from the rest of the administration (and the President!) in a desperate attempt to keep this monster under an hour. Obama himself would clock consecutive 2 a.m. nights editing and revising. And if anyone’s looked at the White House Instagram feed lately, you’ll notice that Director of Speechwriting Cody Keenan hasn’t had time to shave a single hair from his face since late in 2013, and now bears a striking resemblance to Homeland’s Saul Berenson, a development that has left his girlfriend deeply concerned.
So why the hell do we keep putting ourselves through this grueling ritual year after year? Shouldn’t we just go back to the days before Woodrow Wilson, where the State of the Union was conveyed in a simple letter to Congress?
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