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Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Critical View of State of the Union Speeches

George Will deplores the practice of delivering the State of the Union as a speech instead of a written message:
When the Founding generation was developing customs and manners appropriate to a republic, George Washington and John Adams made the mistake of going to Congress to do their constitutional duty of informing and recommending. Jefferson, however, disliked the sound of his voice — such an aversion is a vanishingly rare presidential virtue — and considered it monarchical for the executive to lecture the legislature, the lofty instructing underlings. So he sent written thoughts to Capitol Hill, a practice good enough for subsequent presidents until Wilson in 1913 delivered his message orally, pursuant to the progressives’ belief in inspirational and tutelary presidents.

It is beyond unseemly, it is anti-constitutional for senior military officers and, even worse, Supreme Court justices to attend these political rallies where, with metronomic regularity, legislators of the president’s party leap to their feet to whinny approval of every bromide and vow. Members of the other party remain theatrically stolid, thereby provoking brow-furrowing punditry about why John Boehner did not rise (to genuflect? salute? swoon?) when Barack Obama mentioned this or that. Tuesday night, the justices, generals and admirals, looking as awkward as wallflowers at a prom, at least stayed seated.
In any case, the speech is no longer meeting the Wilsonian goal of swaying public opinion, because the public is not watching.  Constitution Daily reports:
The final TV viewership numbers are in for President Obama’s State of the Union speech, and the broadcast hit a historic low in one of two key ratings categories.
Nielsen says the State of the Union was seen by 33.5 million people, which is the lowest number since 2000 and the second-lowest total since 1993, when the agency first started combined measuring for the event.
The combined rating for the 2013 speech was 21.5, which is the lowest in history. President Bill Clinton’s speech in 2000 had a rating of 22.4. The rating number represents the percentage of possible households that have TV sets and could watch the speech.
In other words, nearly 80 percent of American households skipped watching the State of the Union live or on a tape-delayed basis on TV.