It’s 2015. We live in the era of tablets, smartphones, live-streams, online interactives, listicles, viral content and social media. So why is President Barack Obama, whose White House uses those tools expertly to get its message around traditional news outlets and directly to the public, preparing to trudge through the stodgy yearly ritual that is the State of the Union?
“Is ‘the fact that it’s in the Constitution’ too cheeky an answer?” senior Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer replied with a laugh when Yahoo News asked him last week.
Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution does say that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” It doesn’t specify that he should do so in a primetime TV speech sometimes lampooned as “I come to you tonight to speak in ringing tones and gaze into the middle-distance.”
Obama’s 2014 SOTU, as it is often abbreviated by D.C. insiders, drew 33.3 million television viewers, a personal worst and a 14-year low. The Super Bowl last year pulled in 111.5 million viewers.
But “it will be the largest audience we speak to in the year by far, absent some major, major, major event,” Pfeiffer said.
And it’s a uniquely presidential perk, he emphasized: “We will talk directly to more people than probably every politician of note in America will do in all their speeches combined this year.”
Still, dropping television viewership and the rise of new technologies have forced the White House “to work a lot harder and be a lot smarter” to get the most out of the speech, Pfeiffer said.
The White House sees the speech as having four audiences.
First, there are the people in the room and those watching on live television. They need “a good, compelling speech,” Pfeiffer said.
Second, there are those watching the speech on their laptops, notably on the White House live-stream. For them, the White House plans to make available in-depth data, accessible from the live-stream page. For example, someone interested in Obama’s proposal to make community college tuition free for some students would be able to click on a link that details the policy.
Third, there are two-screen viewers, those watching the speech on TV but holding a tablet or a phone and getting a constant stream of commentary through social media. The White House will be present on major second-screen sites like Twitter, offering links to policy outlines, pictures, short videos and other items, even as White House aides closely watch the Twitter feeds of influential media figures to battle “brushfires” of criticisms that can spread quickly to reporters covering the speech and land in the papers the next day.
Fourth, there’s an audience for the speech that will never watch it on TV and will never sit down to watch it on demand, or read it in full, or ever even visit the White House website. Obama aides will target those people via social media, slicing and dicing the speech into key issue components, each of which will get elements like videos or graphics that can be shared or go on to live on the homepages of influential news outlets or advocacy groups.
So while declining TV numbers have forced the White House to chase audiences across the social media landscape, the result has been to give the speech a longer life online.
Still, despite the importance of social media, Pfeiffer said the speech is not crafted with the need for 140-character Twitter-bites in mind.
“You’ve got to write the speech, and it’s got to be a document that lives in the history books and for the people in the room watching it,” he said.
“But how I think about it has changed,” he explained. “I read it for shareable moments. When the speech is written, I’ll go through it and look and say, ‘This, this, this and this, these are things that have the potential to have real resonance online, either because they speak to an issue that’s powerful — like immigration or climate change — that get a lot of traction online, or it’s like a really emotional thing, or a powerful thing or a funny thing.
“So then we’ll design our amplification strategy around those moments because we know our best case for the people who aren’t going to watch will be short video snippets” or “what lends itself to an infographic,” he said.
As in 2014, the job of writing the address has fallen chiefly on the shoulders of Obama’s lead speechwriter, 34-year-old Cody Keenan. (For how that process unfolds, see Yahoo News’ detailed explanation from last year.)
This year seems to be taking a particular toll on Keenan, who has told White House colleagues that he is getting three hours of sleep a night and has become completely immune to caffeine.
And unlike Raymond Price, a long-ago speechwriter for Richard Nixon, Keenan doesn’t have the option to write the remarks during a sleepless three-day blitz powered by “greenies,” amphetamines prescribed by the White House doctor.