Does the State of the Union speech matter anymore? Here's what an expert says.
Former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol spoke to Yahoo News about how the effectiveness of the State of the Union addresses has changed over time — and why.
President Biden will deliver his second State of the Union address at the Capitol tonight at 9 p.m ET. As the third year of Biden’s presidency gets underway in an era of deep political divisions, it’s the first time he will make the address since Republicans won a slim majority in the House of Representatives.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a former White House press secretary in the Trump administration, will deliver the Republican response following Biden’s speech.
“It’s not very likely that he can get everyone on the same page about policy. But I think it is his obligation as president to try to mark out areas that at least ought to be common ground,” Jeff Shesol, deputy chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a partner at West Wing Writers, told Yahoo News. “He should also talk about areas that aren’t common ground. ... The American people need to know where he stands on a range of issues and whether or not the Republican House is going to allow the country to make progress on them.”
So who gets an invitation to the Capitol, anyway?
Since the constitutionally mandated speech is delivered during a joint session of Congress, all members of the House and Senate are invited to attend with a guest. Sometimes lawmakers choose their guests with the intent to make a political statement. This year, Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, invited the parents of Tyre Nichols, the Black man who was beaten to death by Memphis police officers last month.
The president and first lady also invite family members and other guests who sit in the first lady’s viewing box in the balcony.
Members of the Supreme Court and the president’s Cabinet are also invited, and one member of the Cabinet is chosen as the “designated survivor.” This person stays at an undisclosed location during the address in case of a catastrophic incident at the Capitol, to preserve the continuity of government. The designated survivor for 2023 is Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
With all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the tradition, does the State of the Union address still have the same impact it used to?
“That’s always the scary question for anybody in entertainment or in politics: Is this relevant?” Shesol said. He spoke to Yahoo News about how the effectiveness of State of the Union addresses has changed over time — and why. (Some responses have been edited for length or clarity.)
Yahoo News: What is the purpose of the State of the Union address?
Jeff Shesol: This is the attempt at the start of the year to lay out a very clear agenda, legislative and otherwise, that comprises the president’s vision for the country, what they intend to do about it, and what they are asking others to do about it. When it works, it is meant to set things in motion to create a certain amount of energy to identify priorities and to marshal energy behind them, both in the Congress and in the country.
Have State of the Union addresses always been delivered in speeches?
The first two presidents gave speeches, and Jefferson ended the practice because he thought it seemed too kingly to stand in front of the Legislature and have it sort of behold his majesty. So presidents for over a hundred years submitted written messages to the Congress.
But Woodrow Wilson restarted the practice of delivering the speech in person to the Congress. He thought it was important for the president to be heard as a human being and to be directly engaged with leaders. He had a more active notion of the presidency, and that tradition stuck.
Do State of the Union addresses matter anymore?
I think that we may be reaching the point of diminishing returns with the State of the Union as a tool. I think there are a lot of traditional ceremonies and presentations that may be wearing out their welcome. The State of the Union, I think, is at risk of that. How relevant is it to the legislative battles ahead? How relevant is it to the lives of ordinary Americans? And I think recent presidents have done an ineffective job of making the case.
For those of us in the Clinton White House, the State of the Union was one of the most powerful tools that we had in our arsenal. Clinton was really very good at giving these speeches, both in terms of his presentation, which was always compelling, and in terms of his kind of mastery of policy and his ability to translate it into language that people will absorb and understand. The speech was long, but people listened. Was it a magic wand that you got to wave to change reality? No, not in any way. But it did have, I think, a meaningful effect on the discussion going forward.
I think the problem is that it’s very difficult to do that now. We know that Joe Biden is not Bill Clinton or Barack Obama as a speaker, but that isn’t his only liability. I think that our attention, which was already being fragmented in the 1990s, is all over the place at once right now. The ratings for the State of the Union are holding up pretty well. But are people really watching, absorbing and engaging? I think it’s harder to make that case.
There’s always been partisanship — though not always to this degree, we are certainly more polarized than we used to be. It is not the first time that a president stands before a meaningfully hostile Congress. We’ve had lots of periods of divided government before, but it is very difficult in this environment to stand up, make the sort of traditional appeal for bipartisanship and common ground that you see in every State of the Union address, including Donald Trump’s.
I think that the sort of massive disconnect between Trump’s words and his actual outlook and actions helped widen the credibility gap of this speech. It was never more meaningless a display than it was during the four years of Trump. There are at least four examples of Trump giving one of these weirdly surprisingly ordinary State of the Union addresses and appealing to the better angels of our nature, and then going back to the White House and tweeting invective at anyone you can think of.
The importance of the State of the Union — the meaning, the credibility of the State of the Union — suffered a huge blow under Trump. As in many areas, President Biden is struggling to restore that credibility to our institutions and the State of the Union address as an institution. It’s just hard to get around the camera cutaways to Marjorie Taylor Greene and George Santos, those are going to be distractions, and whatever sort of nonsense they’re likely to be up to.
When you put it all together, our level of national distraction, the credibility gap of the speech itself, its disconnect between a president’s elevated prose and his actions and the degree of partisanship in the country, it is very difficult to believe that the State of the Union has any effect outside of the hour in which it is being delivered.
Will President Biden take this opportunity to lay the groundwork for a 2024 presidential run?
Absolutely. I think he will be identifying areas of common ground and he will also be identifying battlegrounds, even if he doesn’t identify them as such. For example, I think it is absolutely certain that there will be a strong section of the speech on abortion rights. Not only because the issue is consuming the country, but also because this, as Democrats see it increasingly, is a favorable battle to wage. It’s a crucial battle to wage for the country, but it is also a potential competitive advantage for the party in 2024.
I do think that whether he runs again or not, and it certainly seems likely that he will run again, he is going to be marking out territory where he wants to engage the battle with the other side. And that is something that you see presidents do every year in a State of the Union, but particularly as an election approaches.
What other topics will the president likely talk about in his speech?
One of the problems with this speech is that every big topic will be discussed. And every issue and constituency gets a sort of pat on the head, and it becomes very difficult to discern as a listener what is really important here.
In terms of what the focus is going to be, I wouldn’t imagine there will be many surprises. He has got to talk about Ukraine, inflation and the economy, the assault on rights in this country, from abortion rights to voting rights. And I'm sure that all of this will have its moment in the speech.
I think just looking at it, not only as a speechwriter but as a viewer, as a listener, as a voter, I think the president would benefit from a more tightly thematic speech that is about something, or at least about a couple of things and not about a hundred things. I do think that the laundry list has exhausted itself as a useful construct for this speech.