A few days after he was inaugurated as president in March 1933, Franklin Roosevelt revived a communications tactic he had introduced as governor of New York. Though even then many Americans didn’t have radios, Roosevelt gave an address from the White House that was broadcast over the radio airwaves. The subject was an ongoing banking crisis, part of the fallout from the Depression from which the country was struggling to recover.
Part of the appeal, though, was how Roosevelt spoke. Directly. With familiarity. It was a novel use of a new medium.
Week after week, Roosevelt continued to record these addresses. The tradition fell out of favor in the era of television but was revived in 1982 by Ronald Reagan. Once every seven days, presidents would record messages about the country or their policy priorities, and radio stations would air them, usually on a weekend morning. There were occasional lulls — George H.W. Bush did it only sporadically — but it was a tradition that continued through the presidency of Barack Obama.
Once President Trump came into office, though, the tradition faltered and collapsed.
For the first year of his presidency, Trump was fairly consistent about recording the messages. They were taped in advance and then published on social media sites such as YouTube. By mid- to late 2017, though, about the same time that Sarah Sanders transitioned in as Trump’s press secretary, the videos became more sporadic.
In late November 2017, Sanders was asked during a news briefing whether the weekly addresses were being ended. (At that point, Trump had not recorded one for a month.)
“We received quite a few comments and a lot of feedback that the weekly address wasn’t being used to its full potential,” Sanders said. “We’re looking at different ways that we can revamp that and make it where it’s more beneficial and gets more information out.”
The addresses continued sporadically until about a year ago, when they apparently ended for good. (So did daily news briefings, so the question hasn’t been raised again.)
It was at about that point that the White House started releasing short videos, a sort of Trumpian version of Roosevelt’s fireside chats. Pushed out on Twitter and featuring Trump just kind of talking about things off the cuff, they seemed to be something of an alternative to the weekly address.
But these, too, didn’t last long.
The odds are that you didn’t even notice that the weekly addresses had ended. The short speeches were objectively archaic in the current media environment, requiring enough planning that they were a flawed vehicle for illuminating issues in the fast-paced world of modern politics.
Many radio stations had already stopped carrying them, without any outcry. When Voice of America wrote about Sanders’s comments about the addresses in 2017, it spoke with radio stations that had carried the speeches.
“We haven’t received any reaction about the missing addresses,” a program director at a station in Philadelphia said. “Not by phone or email. That is in some contrast to feedback from listeners in prior years who feared we might not choose to carry the new president’s remarks, especially when there was a change in parties.”
For all of the changes Trump has brought to Washington, many unintentional, it’s a reminder that some calcified remnants of past administrations can be swept away without significant problems. Sure, it’s a break with recent presidential norms, but the fact that you may not have noticed until now that the addresses had ended, a year after the last one was produced, suggests that we’re doing just fine without them.