The State of the Union is terrible.
Since the Constitution mandates that presidents “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,” we can’t abolish our atrocious SOTU tradition. I’d prefer we return to the standard, pre-Woodrow Wilson custom of a president simply sending a written report to Congress, but a) that’s unfortunately unrealistic in our TV-and-Internet visual age and b) no one (probably not even Congress) would read it.
But Americans hate the State of the Union speech. What’s more is that, since we hate it, we ignore it. It’s entirely useless, provides no enduring popularity boost to a president, and there is no evidence that it advances any administration’s preferred policies.
So let’s fix it. Here’s my advice to whichever future president wants to actually get something useful out of this embarrassment.
Step 1: Turn the State of the Union Speech into an Actual Speech
The State of the Union should be no more than 30 minutes long, and the speech should be a real piece of political rhetoric about the one big thing that a president’s administration wants to get done that year. We’re Americans. Our brains have been addled by Twitter, and most of us probably have a screaming toddler wreaking havoc in the house. We don’t have the time or attention span to listen to your 15-part laundry-list of a speech about every last initiative or task force your administration plans to launch this year.
The Gettysburg Address was 268 words long. Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech lasted less than 10 minutes from start to finish.
If some speech writer is telling you that your 1 hour and 15 minute speech is inspired rhetoric, it’s not.
If the secretary of health and human services is telling you that the American people are going to care about her task force on new pharmaceutical safety measures, they won’t.
If a senator is demanding one line that endorses his pet project, just say No.
Brevity, Mr. President, is the soul of wit. Make your speech about the one big thing you want to do that year. Keep it to a digestible, Ted Talk-adjacent length. And write a good speech. This takes discipline. Have some discipline!
Step 2: Tell Congress to Sit Down and Stop Embarrassing Themselves
Everyone hates Congress. It’s almost an American tradition. But people really hate the State of the Union speech for the ridiculous, faux-enthusiastic standing ovations after every third sentence. And, if you’re the president, it hurts your speech! It breaks your momentum. Yes, it’s theatre, but it’s terrible theatre.
Mr. President, when you begin your speech, tell the Congress to hold their applause to the end. In fact, use that line! The American people will love it. They’ll thank you for it. You will be a hero, and people might actually decide to watch your speech.
Step 3: Establish the New Tradition of ‘President’s Questions’ in the Senate
Okay, well how are you going to get the news out that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designated six new areas as critical habitat for killer-whale populations off the coasts of Oregon and Washington? How will your administration announce that the Fish and Wildlife Service restored the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s authority over businesses that have caused incidental deaths of migratory birds?
If you’re not putting this in your State of the Union, how will the public ever know about your administration’s (minor) achievements?
Remember, Mr. President, you must be disciplined. No one cares about this stuff in the SOTU speech. It gets ignored anyway. If a speech falls in the woods, does anyone hear it?
You could have your press secretary — your Jen Psaki — go tell the press about it. But no normal person hears or cares about what Jen Psaki says either.
Here’s my idea: Once a month, the president should go down to the Senate, and take 30 minutes worth of questions from senators of both parties. Yes, I’m advocating that you steal the House of Commons’s Prime Ministers Questions tradition wholesale.
Senators from your party can toss you softballs that allow you to tout your administration’s task forces and initiatives. Since the president himself is announcing it, it will get a little more attention than if your no-name press secretary talks about it at a press conference that no one watches.
Sure, senators from the opposition party can send the high cheese across the plate, but that gives you a chance to do a little political sparring to try to get a soundbite on the evening news and gin up your base.
Doing this in the Senate rather than the House will theoretically make it less of a clown show, you’ll be fulfilling your constitutional duty (remember, nothing in the Constitution says that the SOTU report needs to be a yearly speech), and, since incumbent presidents are notoriously lackluster during Presidential Debates, you’ll be getting a little bit of real-world debating practice in before your reelection campaign.
Who knows? Maybe this new tradition will even return the Senate to its roots as the “World’s greatest deliberative body.” (Don’t laugh.)
So that’s the three-step plan to fix the State of the Union speech. Whichever president takes these steps will earn the eternal thanks of the American people. Is there a president willing to go for it?
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