Here's how Joe Biden could revamp the State of the Union address

Jon Marshall, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Political News

President Harry Truman did something bold in 1947 — he allowed his annual State of the Union address to be broadcast on the new medium of television. Since then, not much has changed in the way presidents give their annual message to Congress. Like Truman, chief executives from Dwight Eisenhower to Joe Biden have walked onto the floor of the House of Representatives, handed copies of their speech to the vice president and speaker of the house, and given a televised address.

After more than three-quarters of a century, this format for the State of the Union has grown stale, resulting in fewer Americans paying attention to it. Last year, only 27.3 million people — less than one-twelfth of the U.S. population — viewed the televised address, according to Nielsen ratings. That’s only two-fifths the size of the audience who watched three decades earlier.

For next month’s State of the Union, Biden should consider revamping how it’s delivered to reach a bigger audience in a livelier way. It’s time for a multimedia State of the Union.

Nothing requires that the State of the Union be in the form of a speech, which Biden is scheduled to give on March 7. Instead, the Constitution mandates only 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.”

In fact, for more than 100 years — from Thomas Jefferson through William Howard Taft — presidents’ messages came in the form of written reports. It was Woodrow Wilson who decided in 1917 to add drama to the occasion by giving a speech before a joint session of Congress, according to the American Presidency Project at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Since Truman let his speech be televised, the State of the Union has seen only minor adjustments. Eisenhower added a teleprompter in 1954, Lyndon Johnson shifted the address from midafternoon to prime time in 1965 and Ronald Reagan began the practice of acknowledging guests in the gallery in 1982. The first State of the Union to be streamed on the White House website was George W. Bush’s in 2002.


Barack Obama’s White House tried the biggest recent change in the State of the Union. In 2013, it released an enhanced version with infographics appearing on the right side of the screen as the president delivered his address.

Biden and future presidents could build on Obama’s use of infographics by presenting multimedia State of the Unions that include videos, photos, maps and the voices of ordinary citizens.

For example, as Biden narrates this year’s State of the Union, graphics could show how unemployment has dropped and wages have climbed during his presidency. Maps could highlight where new infrastructure is being built. Video interviews could feature families that can afford health insurance thanks to record enrollment in the Affordable Care Act. Photos and maps of hurricanes, fires and floods could strengthen the argument for his climate change policies.

The president could present a multimedia State of the Union to Congress in prime time while also splitting it into short, punchy segments that could readily go viral on social media.


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