Marshall: How Biden could revamp the State of the Union address

With a stale format and declining viewership, it’s time for a multimedia State of the Union.|

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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 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 week’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 UC 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.

To be sure, a revamped State of the Union needs to be done carefully and skillfully to avoid embarrassment. It should be prepared ahead of time with the help of technologically savvy advisers to avoid glitches.

A model for how to do this already exists: the hearings of Congress’ Jan. 6 committee. Instead of the traditional format of congressional hearings, the committee used multimedia to craft a strong narrative. The hearings included harrowing video clips from the insurrection, graphics detailing the attack on the U.S. Capitol, highlights from recorded interviews with witnesses and maps showing where key players were on Jan. 6. There’s no reason the White House can’t be similarly innovative.

History shows that presidents who take advantage of changing technology tend to be successful. Abraham Lincoln allowed himself to become the first president to be photographed extensively. Franklin Roosevelt used his fireside chats over radio to connect directly with the American people. Eisenhower let the TV networks record presidential news conferences for the first time. And Obama deployed Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media to communicate his policies.

It’s no coincidence that these presidents who used communications technology in new, powerful ways won reelection.

By giving a multimedia State of the Union, Biden could take some of the spotlight off his weakness as a public speaker. And presenting his accomplishments in a fresh, compelling way just might improve his sluggish polling numbers and help him win reelection.

After all, that’s what Truman did a year after he first tried a televised State of the Union.

Jon Marshall is an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. From the Chicago Tribune.

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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