Even in an era of hyper-promotion, State of the Union addresses might rank among this nation’s most oversold events. Outside of a few immortal phrases — among them, a war on poverty launched by Lyndon Johnson and an axis of evil declared by George W. Bush — these meandering midwinter addresses to Congress have produced little more than political laundry lists, quickly forgotten.
Sitting behind President Obama Tuesday night, even Vice President Joe Biden appeared more interested in scrolling through his Twitter timeline. It’s time to shake up a tradition that has become more stale than stately and increasingly less relevant to American life and politics.
Nothing in the U.S. Constitution dictates the current tradition; in fact, the nation suspended the practice for more than a century. George Washington started delivering an annual address in person before Congress, but Thomas Jefferson discontinued the practice in 1801, suggesting that it was more suited to the British monarchy. Woodrow Wilson revived it in 1913.
Constitutional guidelines are vague at best, requiring only that the president “from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” With no real guidelines for format or frequency — and infinite advances in technology and communications — the annual address could become almost anything. Or presidents could just decide it was a waste of time.
Driven by political spin doctors, most State of the Union addresses tell citizens little about the nation’s condition, or whether it’s getting better. Congress or the President could immediately improve matters by requiring that the annual address include a concise national report card, prepared by a nonpartisan agency of Congress.
The report would include key benchmarks of national health, including employment and poverty rates, national debt, infant mortality, crime statistics, incarceration rates, new business starts, and literacy and schooling rates.
With statistics from previous years, the report would give citizens a practical way to measure the nation’s progress. The president would have to do more than simply declare that things are better; he or she would have to take responsibility for benchmarks of social and economic well-being while setting realistic targets for next year. The government could make this report card available online or through the mail.
Beyond that, the president could break from previous formats — using the time, for example, to honor 10 ordinary Americans who are making the nation better, or focusing on two or three policy objectives such as raising the minimum wage. Recorded or Skyped interviews with Americans affected by the policy changes could accompany such an address.
The president could also turn the State of the Union address into a 60-minute news conference with Americans, answering questions through social media and specially designated phone lines.
Instead of delivering an address from Washington, the president could take the show on the road, speaking from different parts of the country that reflect the themes of his address. An address on mass transit might take place in Denver or Seattle; one that focuses on urban poverty could take place in Detroit.
The State of the Union address, as constituted, has outlived its usefulness as a barometer of the nation’s health, or even a tool for advancing a political agenda. Next year, Mr. President, let’s try something different.