On Tuesday, President Biden delivered the first State of the Union of his presidency. Yet many Americans could not be bothered to listen to the leader of their country lay out a series of plans and objectives that will undoubtedly impact their lives in some way.
Early television ratings from the speech confirm this. Biden’s State of the Union, which garnered 38 million active viewers, is lower than those of his two predecessors Obama and Trump, who received 51.8 million in 2010 and 45.5 million in 2018 respectively on their first addresses.
This very well may be a cherry picked statistic which overlooks changing television viewing habits and the variety of factors which kept people from watching the address live, but the message remains the same — the State of the Union did not seem nearly as important in 2022 as it did in recent years.
This is partially due to the fact that the major world-defining story at the moment has very little to do with Washington D.C. as much as it did in years prior.
For Trump’s final State of the Union in February 2020, which drew slightly more viewers than Biden’s, the focus of the American public was transfixed on Trump – it was one day before the Senate would vote on whether or not to convict him of impeachment and remove him from office.
Today, given Vladimir Putin’s ongoing occupation and invasion of Ukraine, the focus of America and the world has shifted elsewhere – even though Biden’s actions will likely play a pivotal role in Ukraine’s future.
Only a week ago Americans were transfixed upon other issues like inflation, COVID-19 mandates, gas prices and traditional culture war mainstays like Critical Race Theory. But ever since Putin’s invasion began, many of those topics have moved to the rearview mirror.
This leaves President Biden delivering a State of the Union, an address meant to relay us information and lay out a plan on the most prescient issue, that can’t offer up a solution for the most important current issue.
But this year’s State of the Union address is not really an anomaly. It feels like, in recent years, the address has become less relevant than it previously was in the past.
This is mainly because of two things that have changed about our political and media landscape in the past 20-25 years.
First, news is delivered instantaneously to everyone all the time. In the original constitutional mandate for a State of the Union the purpose was for the President to, “From time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.” Today that original purpose is not being fulfilled.
Everyone already knows what the “state of the union” is. They’ve been informed from outside sources or from the White House itself. Releasing all information about the union’s state at once is, today, redundant.
The second reason why the address is less relevant is that what the President proposes and outlines in their speech increasingly does not get actually achieved by Congress. The constitutional mandate for State of the Unions also expresses that the address should, “Recommend to their [Congress] Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Today, given our political divides, what measures the President recommends in their address are less likely to be achieved. Of the more than 12,000 pieces of legislation put before this current Congress only 315, or 3%, of those were eventually enacted.
These factors, combined with the lack of any Trumpian antics, created a State of the Union that was largely uneventful and unexciting. With the exception of a Lauren Boebert outburst, Biden saying Putin “has no idea what’s coming” and a few applause lines like “fund the police,” if you missed this year’s State of the Union, you didn’t really miss much.
Which leads you to wonder why we even do this? The answer — it’s constitutionally mandated. And, given our country’s historical reluctance to alter the commandments of our founding fathers, it will probably always be mandated.
So each year, the President will have to waltz into Congress and deliver a long speech full of promises that may never come to fruition.