If you want to know what President Barack Obama will discuss in his 2015 State of the Union speech, there is no need to wait until Tuesday when he delivers his annual message to Congress and the American people.
The president already has begun traveling around the nation to promote the initiatives he will outline next week. Among them are proposals for free community college, more affordable housing and stronger cyber security.
By pushing his agenda before the speech, Obama is reversing the usual sequence of events that accompany State of the Union addresses, as well as similar annual reports from governors, mayors and other public figures. For years, the norm has been to unveil an array of public policy proposals in the speech and then go out on the road to promote them.
Why the change?
From a strategic standpoint, it gives the Democratic president an opportunity to steal some thunder from the new Congress in which Republicans now control the Senate as well as the House.
But partisan politics aside, the practice of going on the road before delivering the speech is emblematic of the radical changes that have occurred in the way people obtain and share news and information. Given today’s 24/7 news cycle and the popularity of social media, there is little suspense and drama surrounding an event such as a State of the Union speech.
Details generally are leaked to the media a day or so in advance, so the president’s major initiatives already have been reported. Although the night of the speech provides an opportunity to flesh out the details of those initiatives, the reporting generally includes less substantive information, such as how many times the talk was interrupted by applause, who refrained from applauding during key points of the speech, and who was chosen by the White House for “shout-outs” from the podium.
As a result, the State of the Union address itself has little news value. In many ways, the speech has come to epitomize what historian Daniel Boorstin labeled a pseudo-event. “It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it,” Boorstin wrote in his 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.
With several of the president’s major initiatives for 2015 already on the table, it is uncertain what approach he will take when he delivers this year’s State of the Union address. Surely, the content and substance of what he says will be more important to the American people than the strategy he employs to sell his agenda.
But if the president’s strategy is successful and moves his agenda forward, he could very well end up setting a powerful precedent for future occupants of the Oval Office.