Viewership is declining. Washington seems increasingly dysfunctional and irrelevant to the daily lives of Americans. The presidency isn’t the bully pulpit it used to be.
In an age of social media and atomized audiences, the annual State of the Union speech is beginning to look like a stuffy relic from a bygone era.
It’s an institution in need of a makeover, which is precisely what the White House intends to do Tuesday night.
An administration noted for its Twitter town halls, Google+ hangouts and a constantly-fed White House Instagram account has already launched a wide-ranging social media offensive surrounding the State of the Union that aims to control the message and create an experience that is unlike any address before it.
Whether or not the effort succeeds, it represents a pivotal moment in the evolution of the speech.
“Influencing the lateral conversation on social media around the speech matters nearly as much as the speech itself,” says Eli Pariser, one of the co-founders of the viral news startup Upworthy and former executive director of MoveOn.org. “It used to be the case that a President mainly needed to worry about courting a few TV pundits and newspaper columnists — but that matters less than it used to, and the organic online conversation matters a lot more.”
Heightening the “lateral” experience of the constitutionally-mandated speech is the administration’s big — and obvious — push in advance of Tuesday’s address. The president’s chief of staff kicked things off last week with a web video, previewing ways users can get involved. The administration’s flooding Twitter using the hashtag #InsideSOTU, and speechwriter Cody Keenan “took over” the White House Instagram account to show behind-the-scenes prep.
And email invitations went out to supporters over the weekend, asking them to watch the speech on their computers at WhiteHouse.gov. That’s an important component because during the speech itself, the White House doesn’t want you on one of those “other” channels and television networks, with pesky pundits and analysis. It wants you on their own online channel, where it controls the feed and the graphics and the context it chooses as the speech is taking place. It wants control of your second screen experience.
In this day of DVRs and on-demand viewing, some shows or events we actually watch live, in real time, on our main television screens. But we talk about them on our second screens — smartphones, tablets and more. It gives us a sense that during those last few episodes of Breaking Bad, for example, all of us were experiencing a media moment together. And with the proliferation of digital distractions, that doesn’t happen much anymore.
Last year’s constitutionally-mandated State of the Union address drew a television audience of 33.8 million, still relatively large compared to, say, The Bachelor, but only about half the audience for Bill Clinton’s State of the Union speeches. All that text and talking and applause can be pretty dull and wonky for the non-political junkie. How then, if you’re a president trudging through your second term, to get any attention for your ideas? The White House’s answer is make it a social media event. Like the Breaking Bad finale. Or the Golden Globes. Or a Peyton Manning-Tom Brady NFL showdown.
The Constituency He Needs
This is also, of course, about providing media experiences that meet people where they’re at — and for young people, that means meeting on a variety of digital platforms. The 30-and-under set is a demographic Democrats rely on whose support for the president has clearly lapsed. His approval rating has dropped to 45 percent among millennials, according to a USA Today/Pew survey. The 18-29 age group voted for him by a 2-to-1 margin in his successful campaigns against John McCain and Mitt Romney.
“A lot of the [State of the Union] stuff never gets passed but at least it gets talked about,” says Brian William Smith, a political scientist at St. Edward’s University. “Obama’s fear is that he’s pushing a bunch of initiatives geared to young people — a constituency he really needs to get back into the Democratic fold, and they won’t know about it. We know young people are a little disillusioned right now. He’s gotta keep young people involved, especially with midterms coming up. If they stay home, that’s bad news for the Democrats. The president is done, but the Democratic Party is not done. This is a huge election for them.”
The White House has done something like this before, with the “enhanced experience” charts it rolled out with last year’s State of the Union. That enhanced speech video was viewed more than one million times, a White House spokesman told Bloomberg. [Our NPR graphics team took a closer look at all those charts to review their accuracy.]
And the digital push will continue beyond tonight’s speech. The administration is already trying to gin up support for its “Big Block of Cheese Day” — a nod to President Andrew Jackson’s 1837 White House, when he hauled in a 1,400 pound block of cheddar and invited anyone to come meet with him and other administration staff. (Fictional President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet of The West Wing also held two of these “Big Block of Cheese Days” during his TV presidency.)
There’s no way the confab could happen in the physical world, so the administration is holding it online Wednesday. As for the president, he’s going on the customary post-SOTU road trip to sell his policy ideas — but this time, he’s aiming to personalize the experience. A “virtual road trip” Google + Hangout is scheduled so individualss can call in and ask him a question.
“He wants everybody to participate but he also wants to control the message,” Smith says. “Because this is a big year. The president has a lot of initiatives on the table. He’s gotta figure out a way to get people back.”