To be quite honest, I’ve watched one or two State of the Union addresses in my young life. I’m a dork for political rhetoric, but there is something utterly boring about the address. The president reveals some major policy initiatives and his party applauds wildly while the opposition sits stoically. Then, after the hour-long speech, political pundits take over to rehash every. Single. Detail. From U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner’s facial expressions to who shook the President’s hand first, it seems that nothing is too mundane.
All of this might contribute to why people aren’t tuning in. In the wake of the Internet revolution, far fewer people are watching the State of the Union. According to Nielsen, 45.8 million people tuned in to former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s 1994 State of the Union, but on Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama had an audience of just 31.7 million. Don’t forget that the U.S. population has grown by about 53 million in that same timespan. To put Obama’s ratings into even better perspective, the State of the Union was broadcast on 13 different channels. Sunday’s AFC Championship game on CBS raked in more than 42 million viewers.
In an effort to give the State of the Union a much-needed facelift, Obama and his advisors took to social media and circumvented traditional media altogether. As Obama heads into his final two years in office, this is the best strategy he can adopt to make himself most effective.
The State of the Union is an important moment (or 60 moments) for the president. It is the one time each year he will address the country from all major networks without tragic or breaking news to share. It’s an opportunity for him to carefully craft a message and then deliver it without the media’s spin.
Clearly Obama’s administration has been trying to create more of these unfiltered moments with the public. Obama announced his free community college plan on Vine and Facebook two weeks ago with little warning to traditional media outlets. Back in November, the White House posted a video announcing the new immigration executive orders, again with few details leaked to the press. These policies received a lot of backlash, as the media and other politicians rushed to respond. The community college program even prompted Boehner to counter, in what I’m sure he and his staff thought was an equally hip way, with Taylor Swift GIFs. Feel free to check it out. Let’s just say Christmas came early for this political columnist.
The point is that even though the administration broke the news on its own terms, and without the media’s perspective, journalists still get to weigh in. It is after the fact, but they still have the opportunity to provide context, statistics and expert opinions. By tweeting first and issuing press releases second, the White House is providing its #nofilter message. It gives Obama a chance to argue for his decisions before people such as Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow offer their opinions. Why wouldn’t Obama take advantage of this opportunity?
This year, the Obama administration took its new digital media strategy and applied it to Tuesday night’s State of the Union. It launched an extensive web page to preview the State of the Union and highlight the different ways to watch. The White House even offered an “enhanced” version alongside the live video of the address — complete with detailed charts and pretty colors. On Wednesday, the White House engaged with the public on its second annual “Big Block of Cheese” Day, where Twitter users asked questions and administration officials answered.
All of this is exactly what the State of the Union — and the Obama administration — need. In a digital media age, we’re bored if there aren’t 87 things to pay attention to. By making the State of the Union a digitized and interactive affair, the Obama administration increased the media buzz and engaged younger viewers.
According to the latest Washington Post/ABC poll, Obama has an approval rating of 50 percent, his highest since spring 2013. Building on this number is the best thing Obama can do for his agenda and his party. With a Republican-controlled Congress, the only way Obama will accomplish anything will be if he has more than a lackluster nation supporting him. Sure, compromise and bipartisanship could go a long way, but there’s a better chance of the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks hugging it out in the middle of overtime next weekend than Republicans and Democrats agreeing to compromise on the big-ticket items right before the 2016 presidential election.
Obama has not fulfilled our ridiculously high expectations for his presidency in the last six years, and no one has been more critical than the media. If the administration continues to use social media to circumvent the press, at least temporarily, some of these State of the Union promises might actually have a shot.
What a bright, funny and thoughtful take on the SOTU! We need to hear more voices like yours. The future belongs to you, so you must stay engaged and seize every opportunity to shape it. Kudos!