The Modernized State of the Union
There used not to be too many high-profile days in the Capitol. Politics weren't a central focus of life, and people weren't knowledgeable about the issues. If the presidential elections were D.C.'s World Cup – an event that the whole world tuned into with mild to fervent levels of interest – the state of the union is their Superbowl, an event that only a few people care about and a whole lot more watch in the background. In a world that wasn't saturated with political analysis, a president setting his annual agenda would have been relatively important. But those days have passed us by, taking with them the importance of public statements and pre-planned teleprompter speeches. And this modernization of the State of the Union is powered by one outlet: Twitter.
Hate Donald Trump's tweets as you may, they serve an invaluable function. They give a snapshot of the president's mindset, unfiltered through lawyers and untainted by advisors. They are a reflection of the latest things that he has learned, the things which pervade his psyche at given instants. Such a resource is something that any newspaper would have killed for during any other administration – a stream of consciousness of the most powerful person in the world. Naturally, such access would be far more valuable for a president whose thoughts gave way to actions in some kind of logical sequence, but regardless, it's access nonetheless. It's unclear whether these two elements are at least somewhat exclusive, that a president who thinks by cause-and-effect would be one unwilling to share their instantaneous thoughts.
While it's easy to scoff at Kellyanne Conway's remark that because Donald Trump president, anything he does is presidential behavior, it holds true in a different sense than she intended it. Every president contributes to the compendium of what is presidential, and each new president looks at it as a whole, determining the bounds of what is considered acceptable. Trump ignored that sentiment entirely, but if he is truly an exception., then all future presidents will continue to abide by that compendium. The thing is, that it will also feature Trump.
Where this of course becomes problematic is that the tweets are a matter of public record. They are official White House statements. There should be no distinguishing between this and other forms of communication, for there will be no distinction made in the annals of history. While it will be written that "the president tweeted" and "the president's speech included" and "in a statement, the White House said," they will all blend into the category of "things that happened during this time". But in real time, they are definitively different. As unhinged as his interviews and speeches can become, they rarely stray toward the entirely insulated realm of the tweets. You can't picture Trump in front of the White House podium asking "Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me 'old,' when I would NEVER call him 'short and fat?'" or proclaiming "I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius....and a very stable genius at that!" To his credit, he does manage to stay somewhat on-brand while in the confines of the briefing room, only letting truther-Trump slip out when he's in the safer space of a rally or a campaign event.
And that real-time distinction comes into effect once again tonight. The president, via Twitter, gives almost daily updates as to the state of the union, highlighting his priorities and thoughts for the next few hours. Those provide far more insight into the workings of the Oval Office than a Q&A, an interview, or a speech. The one he will give tonight is simply the average of everything he has tweeted over the last month, fed through speechwriters and toned down by the simple fact that the president has to actually say these words aloud. Last year's address (technically a "speech to a joint session of Congress" and not a "state of the union" because he hadn't yet been in office for a year) was described as having a more optimistic tone and many saw the moment as 'presidential', somewhat in contrast with the inauguration speech a month before that prominently featured 'American carnage'. All of that was nothing new – Trump has had moments of apparent presidential-ness before, only to relapse shortly thereafter. Before, the State of the Union might even have been a family event – get the kids together and see what the president wants us to hear. But this time, we already know what the president wants us to hear. This speech will be worth far less than a single tweet, in terms of policy, tone, and presentation.
And even back when it was important, it's hardly ever remembered. There isn't even one line of rhetoric that stands out from the speeches from years past. Only two moments are worth remembering: representative Joe Wilson's "you lie" from the audience in 2009, and Marco Rubio's water break in the 2013 Republican response. Neither of those were actual remarks by the president. Most of the speech isn't even remarks from the president, because it's taken up by applause and shots of war widows crying. So who cares. Unlike addresses from a decade ago, people will already know what the president is talking about, have already formed opinions on it, and even know the president's opinions on it. So at this time, perhaps only for this president, it doesn't matter.
Quick Endnote: Apparently there is a 'designated survivor' for State of the Union addresses, since the president is joined by all of his cabinet and the vast majority of Congress. It's a backhanded compliment, since it effectively says "hey we think you could potentially be an okay president but only if literally everyone else dies first." The most high-profile designated survivor in recent years was then-Attorney General Eric Holder back in 2009, which was Obama's "speech to a joint session." Obama's final address in 2016 had two designated survivors (including Orrin Hatch for some reason), and Trump's address last year was the Veterans Affairs secretary. Tonight's is Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the one cabinet member you probably haven't heard of. Too bad Omarosa or Michael Flynn still aren't around.