Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

In 2013, democracy talks back about State of the Union

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 9:17 AM EST, Wed February 13, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Presidents are required to report on the state of the union
  • For a long time, reports were delivered in writing; today there is a speech
  • Bob Greene: New element is that citizens can immediately talk back with their views
  • Twitter users were posting tens of thousands of messages a minute

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- "To report the state of the union."

Within the first few seconds of President Barack Obama's address Tuesday night, he quoted the late President John F. Kennedy, who 51 years ago used those words to describe a president's annual duty.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

As Obama spoke, citizens around the country were tapping away at keyboards, posting and sending messages -- public and private -- characterizing their own view of how the union, and its president, are faring.

Obama told the packed House of Representatives chamber:

"We can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger."

Rothkopf: This time, a president in full

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



And those citizens around the country, typing away, were in essence saying:

We'll be the ones to decide that, thank you very much.

It is one of the most profound changes a modern president faces: The fact that the day is long gone when a chief executive can declare what the status of the nation is and have the words be treated as a one-directional proclamation rather than as the first salvo in an instant conversation. Twitter reported that as Obama discussed the middle class and minimum wages, its users were posting messages at the rate of 24,000 per minute.

Tweets on State of the Union

Gingrich and Granholm debate on CNN

The State of the Union address, for more than a century -- from Thomas Jefferson to Woodrow Wilson -- was not even delivered verbally to Congress.

It was handed to the House and Senate on paper, and then printed -- usually in full -- in newspapers across the country. Americans studied the words as they would a major company's annual report. The official version -- the hot-off-the-presses results of the nation's yearly physical exam.

The dynamic, of necessity, has been forever altered.

Welch: Obama's 'do-something' plan for a 'have-nothing' government

"I'm also issuing a new goal for America," Obama said Tuesday night, and before he could even complete the sentence, he had to know that there were plenty of people who would automatically reject whatever words would follow and would not be shy about it.

Self-doubt is a characteristic that a modern president of either party must banish as he speaks. If he were to dwell on the fact that every single syllable he utters is being dissected in real time, it would be understandable if he were unable to make it through a paragraph.

"We know what needs to be done," Obama said, but that word -- "we" -- is itself open to daily dispute. A president's voice may be, symbolically, the loudest in the republic, but it is one voice among hundreds of millions, most of them with the technological power to talk right back. Democracy, at warp speed.

Slaughter: Obama dares Congress to get the job done

That endless and instantaneous conversation -- and it is only going to grow more constant in the decades to come -- is the contemporary reality to which each president must now adjust, the fresh fact of civic life. It is, in a fundamental way, the new state of the union.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT