Who's watching SOTU?
On reporting to the boss, primetime ratings, and why Calvin Coolidge wouldn't have cared if you didn't tune in to the State of the Union
In a country of more than 330 million people, fewer than a tenth stopped what they were doing on Tuesday night to watch the State of the Union address, "the second smallest audience for the annual event in at least 30 years", in the words of the Associated Press.
■ It's available for viewing on YouTube anytime, and the full text is online, too. And it's not hard to find commentary on the speech from every corner. C-SPAN has highlight clips. Anyone who wants to be informed about the address can be.
■ But when people comment on the audience size, it's hard to avoid value judgments. A New York Times reporter phrased it, "Just 27.3 million people watched Biden's State of the Union address on television". Putting aside that 27.3 million people is still more than the population of any individual state other than Texas or California, or that it is more than three times the audience for any scripted primetime television program, it's worth considering whether viewing the address is of any importance at all.
■ Calvin Coolidge, who had his own experience with reporting the State of the Union, said to a press conference in 1925, "I would like it if the country could think as little as possible about the Government and give their time and attention more undividedly about the conduct of the private business of our country."
■ Coolidge himself only delivered one State of the Union address in person; he submitted written messages for the rest. And that would be a perfectly fine mode to adopt once again. The Constitution only requires that "He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union". It does not say the message has to be delivered in a speech, nor that it has to be disseminated to the public at large.
■ The State of the Union is, fundamentally, like a workplace report to a supervisor -- after all, Congress is supposed to tell the President what to do, and it reserves the right to impeach and remove any President who doesn't execute. The spectacle that we have come to recognize over the last century is a reflection of a chronic mass confusion about those relative roles. If more than 91% of Americans choose to "think as little as possible about the Government", then that's probably just fine.