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Three ways to improve the response to the State of the Union address

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla. takes a sip of water during his response to President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2013.)
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This is a guest post from Arthur Lupia, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.

Democracy benefits when both political parties effectively articulate their vision for the future. So, when a State of the Union address or the opposition’s response is notable for something other than its message, the outcome is bad for the nation as a whole. In recent years, the SOTU response has been gaffe-riddled and ineffective. Citizens who care about the effectiveness of democratic communication, and partisans who want their party to seize important communicative moments, should urge the parties to improve the SOTU response.

The SOTU response is a rare opportunity for the president’s opposition to provide citizens with updated and unfiltered message about the nation’s future. In years without a presidential election, it is the only prime-time television slot that the major networks offer to the opposition. But SOTU responses are increasingly notable for their gaffes. A year later, we all remember a thirsty Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) drinking water. In 2011, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) appeared to look into the wrong camera for the duration of her televised response. Democracy suffers when rare large-scale communicative opportunities are fumbled away.

Here are three ways to make the response more valuable for Americans and for the responding party.

First, remember that most Americans experience the SOTU response as a television program. Television programs can be produced in ways that accentuate or diminish the power of a message. The responding party should make a program that people enjoy watching. Today’s SOTU responses have the production qualities of a 1980s cable-access program. The response’s bland setting pales in comparison to the grand and colorful tapestry of the SOTU address itself, which most viewers just watched. The response typically takes place in a studio that is dead silent except for what the respondent is saying. Contrast this with the crowds that greet the president when he enters and the frequent applause he receives (even if offered by only half of the attendees). Viewers notice these differences, which can provide visual and aural reinforcement to the notion that the responding party is second-best.

Second, add an audience. Ample research shows that people’s acceptance of new information often depends on how they see others responding to it. If the response can be delivered in front of citizens whose enthusiasm for the message is energetic and genuine, viewers will sense that. Viewers who see that a message excites others as well as themselves can feel that their support of the responding party will not be in vain. Having an audience also will solve another recurring problem. The responding party often gives its rising stars the honor of delivering the response. One of the qualifications for being a rising star is relating effectively to live audiences. The responding party should put speakers in a setting where they can use their live-audience skills to amplify the power of the party’s message.  To make sure that the audience does not look like a contrived stage prop, put the audience in an auditorium where they and the speaker can make eye contact and viewers can more easily imagine themselves in the crowd.

Third, include lots of energetic young adults. The stateliness of the Capitol during a SOTU address is a backdrop that lends importance and power to the president’s words. While most of the people in the SOTU’s live audience are very accomplished, they are also very busy. As a result, cameras often show attendees falling asleep or distracted on their phones. The responding party can have a different audience – one that lends its party’s message optimism and energy. Because there will always be plenty of young voters who want to play a bigger role in the responding party’s future, why not invite them to be part of the audience? Viewers would see, hear and feel the energy that such can audience can create.

Because most citizens experience the SOTU response as a television program, we shouldn’t be surprised when they judge it harshly as such. The parties can do better. They can revere the opportunity for reflection the SOTU evening offers while also crafting a response that is memorable not for the speaker’s dry mouth or for retrograde production, but for the forward-looking power of its message.