Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment,” a new book that Princeton University Press will publish this March. He’s also the co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Follow CNN’s coverage of the State of the Union at 9 p.m. EST on Tuesday.
President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday is the next chapter in his saga. Commentators will ask many questions: What will the President lay out as his agenda for the coming year? Will he stay away from some of the controversial topics of the past few months or will he take a deep dive into the subject matter sure to rattle the legislators who are watching him live in the chamber? How will the Democrats watching react?
All of these are important questions, but the truth is that the State of the Union address doesn’t really matter that much anymore. It is not the kind of galvanizing national event that it once was. The speech is not what it used to be, and neither is the audience.
Sure, the speech is still a focusing event in Washington that dominates discussion for a few days, and it is the kind of speech that tens of millions of people are likely to see.
But the notion that this event will have a huge impact on the political dynamics shaping Washington or really tell us much about where the President is going this year are far-fetched. We tend to hugely exaggerate the way in which one presidential speech can move public opinion, alter the contours of congressional politics or guide the behavior of the commander in chief in the months after it has been delivered.
And in our short-attention-span culture, the news tends to move onto a new subject within days if not hours. In the scramble to feed the 24-hour news cycle, reporters tend to look for the next big story and each moment in any presidency tends to fade pretty fast.
When there are hundreds of television channels and internet sites to choose from, as well as the option of pay-for-service sites like Netflix or Hulu, much of the public can tune into whatever they want while the President is speaking. Gone are the days when all other programming ceased so that the president could make his speech, and anyone who wanted to watch television or listen to the radio had no other choice but to tune in.
The State of the Union rarely impacts public opinion about a president nor does it have a huge effect on public opinion about the issues discussed.
Indeed, the electorate has become so polarized in recent decades that there is very little that a president can do to persuade his opponents to change their minds; his supporters don’t need to be convinced.
For those who are just looking for the highlights of Trump’s speech, they are most likely going to be reading and watching analysis from their favorite news outlets. Even the short excerpts of Trump’s speech that will be shared by millions on social media, do not add up to the kind of national reach that networks once commanded over the news.
When reporters cover whatever the President says, a substantial number of journalists who have powerful platforms will be doing so through a partisan prism. The information that comes from the President will instantly be filtered through a political lens as newscasters spin the information in ways that will be appealing to their base. While there are many news outlets that will provide straight coverage, much of the news analysis won’t sound much different than what you will hear from members of Congress.
Still, there are many parts of the news media that will provide straight, neutral coverage. But even those platforms have analysts and commentators with specific partisan perspectives.
Simply put, the ability of objective journalists to shape coverage of the speech has vastly diminished.
Adding to that, is the Trump effect. The President now has a long and undistinguished record of saying things that are not true. His tweets and his public statements are filled with comments that have no basis in fact or that stretch the truth so far you can almost see the veracity elastic starting to break.
Unlike most presidents before him, he does this with a kind of reckless abandon that we have not seen in the Oval Office. As Eric Alterman wrote in a recent column for The Nation, “Lying presidents are nothing new. … What’s novel about Donald Trump, however, is that he does not lie in pursuit of some larger political goal or to hide a potentially damaging secret. He just likes to lie, often for no discernible reason.”
Given his relationship to the truth, there is just no reason to take his formal public proclamation as a genuine road map for the coming months. It might be that some of things he says should be said at face value, but it is equally plausible to conclude that he has no intention of following through with the statements from the night.
If the President wants to try to get some traction from this speech, he would really need to do something unpredictable and say something that fundamentally upsets the conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill. At this point, the only possibility would be some big, bold and compelling statement directing leaders toward a genuine bipartisan breakthrough on an issue like infrastructure or immigration reform. He would have to do so with enough detail to convince the public he is serious, and in a way that is so bold it sounds like more than the standard false partisan appeals to work with the other side.
It is too bad that the State of the Union address doesn’t carry more weight. In an era when Americans are so cynical about Washington and politics has become so bitterly partisan, it would be nice to have a few events that command respect, attention, and convey a gravitas about government. But, unfortunately, that is not where we are today.
For those who actually do watch or listen, the State of the Union address will probably be a flash in the pan. It will be analyzed through partisan perspectives for audiences that look only for like-minded news stories, and it will likely be filled with information that is about as trustworthy as the promises of a villain in Hollywood’s latest superhero movie.