State of the Union addresses rank among the nation’s most oversold events. Outside of a few immortal phrases — a war on poverty launched by Lyndon Johnson, an axis of evil declared by George W. Bush — these meandering addresses produce little more than political laundry lists, quickly forgotten.
It’s time to shake up a tradition that has become increasingly less relevant to American life and politics.
Nothing in the Constitution dictates the current tradition. It requires only that the president “from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
The address should include a concise national report card, prepared by a nonpartisan agency of Congress. The report would include key benchmarks of national health, including employment and poverty rates, national debt, infant mortality, crime statistics, incarceration rates, new business starts, and literacy and schooling rates.
The president would have to do more than simply declare that things are better; he or she would have to take responsibility for benchmarks of social and economic well-being while setting realistic targets for next year.
Recorded or Skyped interviews with Americans affected by national conditions and administration policies could accompany the State of the Union report. The president could turn the State of the Union address into a 60-minute news conference with citizens, answering questions through social media and by phone.
The State of the Union ritual, as constituted, has outlived its usefulness as a barometer of the nation’s health or even a tool for advancing a political agenda. A truly modern president would try something different.