Yes We Can ... Watch Something Else

Obama gave his 2012 State of the Union address last night, and all the eyes in the media and political world were tuned in. During the address, 766,681 SOTU-centric tweets were fired off, with 548 coming from inside the chamber. Despite the frenzy that takes over news rooms and congressional offices, the rest of the nation was more likely watching The Real Housewives of Atlanta or Wizards of Waverly Place.

Ever since cable started competing with the networks for the hearts of the American public, ratings for primetime presidential addresses have plummeted, as shown by research conducted by Matthew A. Baum and Samuel Kernel of Harvard and the University of California, San Diego, respectively. Richard Nixon—not known for the most stirring rhetoric outside of defending questionable pet gifts—had 59 percent of households with televisions watch a routine press conference he gave in 1969. In 2010, Obama only had 41 percent of households watch him give the most important presidential speech of the year. In 2011, Obama’s State of the Union address was viewed live by 11 percent fewer people than the previous year.

An important caveat to make is that many people may live-stream these addresses rather than watch the speech on a network or cable-news broadcast, but the decades-long descent in viewers remains even if one accounts for this. Kernell and Baum attribute the drop to the availability of alternative programs available on cable channels, and the fact that fewer networks carry the speech in full—a problem that can only increase with the proliferating options available on Netflix and Hulu. When the public isn’t watching the president’s primetime addresses, it becomes much more difficult to disseminate his or her message.

The foremost goal of the State of the Union is for the president to relay his legislative agenda to Congress, but television made the speech increasingly focused toward the viewers at home as a way of getting to Congress. Modern presidents have increasingly relied on what Kernell calls “going public,” or using the bully pulpit as a way to gain leverage to push policy proposals and win other political advantages. This method becomes increasingly useless when there is no public to go to, especially during the president’s biggest speech of the year. 

With the stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act, and this year’s jobs plan, Obama tried to harness his 2008 campaign-honed charisma to win the public and, as an extension, votes in Congress. His speeches were mostly unheeded by the gridlocked Congress and the public, and when legislation was passed, it didn't look like the bills Obama pushed. This time, Obama didn’t go public to push legislation. Obama only went public last night to persuade people to elect him instead of the GOP alternative, as Jonathan Chait and Harold Meyerson explained last night. And even though many people weren’t watching the speech last night, the State of the Union will remain a prominent news item for the rest of the week, turning the speech into a campaign event that keeps on giving through sound bites, interviews, and analysis. Even by treating the State of the Union like a campaign speech, Obama is unlikely to get an approval bump, but by avoiding policy proposals, he is also avoiding a spring-loaded backlash from failed legislation closer to November.

The State of the Union will never hold as much sway with Congress or the public as it did during the "golden age of television," but by pushing directly for votes from the public instead of Congress, he found the least bad way to use the damaged presidential tool he inherited, which unfortunately means going light on policy and heavy on campaign-winning platitudes. And you can thank Jersey Shore and Hoarders for that. 

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