Not to start too pessimistically, but let’s be honest with one another. The pomp and scale that surrounds Washington is a skeleton of the past. That’s not meant to refer solely to the architecture, the fake-it-till-you-make-it pretensions of a young country written in marble. It refers to much of the pageantry that we still embrace, beyond modern utility or necessity. It refers, to be direct, to the State of the Union address.
The State of the Union address used to be the State of the Union letter, thanks, in part, to John Baird’s having invented television more than a century into our nation’s existence. But even at the outset, the State of the Union was just “the state of the union,” listed in Article II of the Constitution in the spirit of a job-requirements listing on a Craigslist help-wanted ad. The president, it reads, shall “from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union,” and also deal with ambassadors, obey the law and be proficient in Microsoft Office.
In 1789, it was perhaps useful to remind the president of the importance of keeping Congress (then numbering fewer than 100 people) up to speed on what was happening in the nation on the whole. The utility of that has declined significantly, what with Twitter and such. President Woodrow Wilson began the idea of giving those updates in a speech, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the State of the Union a spectacle. And once a spectacle is begun in Washington, it’s got inertia.
By now, President Obama knows there’s no utility to it. His poll numbers haven’t been helped by the speech; on average, his approval as measured by Gallup has been a point lower the week after his addresses compared with the week before. That’s not only a function of decreased viewership, since poll numbers have long been immune to State of the Union boosts. But viewership is down over the past two decades. In 1994, Bill Clinton’s speech appeared on four networks and was watched by 45.8 million people, according to Nielsen. In 2014, Obama was on 13 networks and seen by 33.3 million — even though the country had added more than 50 million people in the interim.
The world has changed since 1994. Obama is so eager for his ideas to be heard by the public that he has embraced the fragmentation of the media, announcing his community-college proposal on Vine and his immigration plan on Facebook. After Tuesday’s speech, he’ll take questions from a category of people known as “YouTube stars,” one of whom is fond of green lipstick and whose 2012 video of herself choking on cinnamon has been viewed 42 million times. (If you don’t feel like doing the math, that’s 126 percent of Obama’s live 2014 State of the Union audience.)
A bigger problem, though, is that Americans simply are no longer that impressed by the pageantry of the presidency. Everyone wants to meet Obama, sure; everyone wanted to get a beer with George W. Bush in the famous formulation. Confidence in the presidency at large, as measured by Gallup last year, was down from 1991 by more than 40 points. Trust in government dropped precipitously and then flattened. It’s easy to dismiss Obama’s YouTube outreach as diminishing the status of the office, but only officeholders and those on Capitol Hill who seek it seem to offer it much status anymore.
That’s why we continue with the State of the Union address. It gives the president an excuse to talk about his policy priorities, but he certainly doesn’t need to gather everyone together in the Capitol to do that. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) knows (and has likely dismissed) Obama’s key policy goals, without the big address. We have the speech because it is Tradition, and that Tradition reflects the Importance of the Office. So Obama walks onto the House floor, passing through an effusive crowd of legislators as they imagine themselves making that same walk, and the Great Spectacle of Washington is upheld.
Obama spent the past month doing everything in his power to do what he wanted while sidestepping the people he will be addressing Tuesday. But still he will get into his car at the White House — Wolf Blitzer commenting in hushed tones over the live shot of him doing so — and trek to Capitol Hill. Because this is what happens in Washington — because this is what has happened in Washington. And let’s face it, politicians don’t come here to upset the apple cart. They come here to polish the right apples.