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 10:17 AM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT