President Biden will deliver his State of the Union address on Feb. 7, and two things are guaranteed: He’ll declare the state of the union strong, and that’s all you’ll remember on Feb. 8. This has nothing to do with Mr. Biden’s oratory. The State of the Union is the last great regular communication opportunity in American politics, but its power shrivels every year because the mode of presentation is obsolete. Where else in modern life does someone try to rally people around his or her ideas with a constantly interrupted, visually desolate, 60-minute rant? Fine, the Joe Rogan podcast, but you can’t name a second.
The idea of a yearly presidential keynote is perfect for our transactional republic. Swapping an hour of attention for everything you need to know about a president’s agenda seems a decent trade. But the medium has always been more important than the message. For decades after 1947, when Harry Truman gave the first TV version of the address, a nationally televised speech was the most potent way to organize and communicate information, and the pomp of gavels and ovations signified order and control. Mediums, though, age at warp speed. The decline-of-Western-civilization crowd can bemoan our culture’s impatience, but a president doesn’t have the luxury of being both out of touch and effective. Without an evolutionary leap, the State of the Union address is on its way to becoming a relic — the Werther’s Original of mass communication.
The Constitution says 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.” For much of American history, presidents zipped a written report over to Capitol Hill. It wasn’t even called the State of the Union address until 1947, and as recently as 1981, Jimmy Carter opted to deliver his in writing. So if the State of the Union can take any form, what form should it take?
There’s still some ceremonial value to a congressional studio audience, but it’s way past time to integrate other media. Let’s say Mr. Biden wants to boast about the $80 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act for revitalizing the I.R.S. Rather than serve up that lean jerky of acronyms and numbers, dim the lights on the joint session and take America to the movies. Transport viewers to the I.R.S. office in Austin, Texas, where as recently as last year, the cafeteria was a wall-to-wall maze of paper tax returns. Cut to a diligent I.R.S. clerk navigating that maze and let her talk about the ancient computer systems and years of budgetary starvation that killed all hope of keeping up with the pace of incoming paper. Sixty seconds is plenty of time to see and feel the problem, stripped of politics. When the lights come up, the president can explain his solution: updating technology, hiring new enforcement agents and auditing the wealthiest Americans to close the roughly $600 billion gap between taxes collected and taxes owed each year.
Look at how effective a similar strategy was for the Jan. 6 committee. They didn’t just incorporate video, but changed the structure of congressional hearings from a buffet of scenery-chewing grandstanders into a meticulous storytelling machine. Integrate a few short films into the standard presidential speech and you’ll have achieved a similar feat — transforming a to-do list into a story about America, an actual state of the union. Then release those clips to social media and grab tens of millions more eyeballs that will never tune in to a conventional address.
There’s no need to stop there. In the era of peak data, the president should dare to cross the nerd Rubicon. No one needs to see Joe Biden explain the Gini coefficient, but charts and graphics have come a long way since Ross Perot squawked into our lives with his drugstore poster board. Data can dance now, and any good designer can turn the slope of the unemployment rate since he took office or the abrupt retreat of gas prices into a meme-able moment of drama that brushes back misinformation and solidifies an economic accomplishment.
And while we’re dreaming, steal from Apple’s playbook of split-second-timed, endlessly profitable keynotes — not by turning every policy into a product, but by letting more than one person speak. Tim Cook, the world’s most powerful C.E.O., uses Apple keynotes to LARP as the stage manager in “Our Town,” introducing the audience to the kindly executives of Cupertino Corners. Imagine a State of the Union that beams in the secretary of state live from Kyiv or gives the secretary of energy a cameo to tout all the E.V. charging stations headed to your neighborhood. Charisma mileage may vary, but the idea that the most prosperous nation in human history is run by one person isn’t just preposterous — it’s bad theater. Recast as stage manager, the president would look wise, generous and capable, and he’d still get to hog the best lines.
Reinventing the State of the Union could have the virtue of creating a more engaged citizenry, but it would still be a Washington production — which means it’s ultimately about power and the president’s ability to get what he wants. The more he sounds like he’s communicating in the present, the more likely voters are to trust him with their future.
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