Each year, amidst all the run-up pieces to the president’s State of the Union address detailing what he might say, private conversations among many Washington types often center around whether they’re even going to bother watching, and questioning whether the speech matters much at all. Some even say it out loud. I’ve never subscribed to this way of thinking. The annual address matters, if not for what’s proposed, for the sheer size of the television audience, and for the overall image that’s projected by the players in the House chamber into living rooms across the country.
On viewership, numbers vary year-to-year, but between 40 and 50 million Americans typically tune in. That’s not exactly the Superbowl, but in our current era of razor-thin electoral margins, it’s a lot of people who are probably going to be voting in the next election. Many of these are unswayable partisans who are watching to see how their “team” does. But if the audience reflects overall political preferences of the American population, well over ten million critical independent voters are part of the audience, and potentially “get-able” by either side.
Which brings us to the overall image that goes out to that audience, and last night.
Voters aren’t too keen on either political party today. But as much as the Democrats are justifiably struggling, Republicans continue to grapple with what could be called a “normalcy gap.” This showed itself in the recent midterm elections, where Republicans who chose not to go along with the “stop the steal” movement and comported themselves along the lines of what would have been considered traditional even ten years ago were rewarded by voters. Those who chose the other path, one reflective of Trumpist bombast, saw their electoral fortunes crumble. So, as unpalatable as Democrats may be for many voters, the latter kind of Republican is worse.
President Joe Biden clearly knew this, and used it to tremendous political advantage last night. In reading the text of the speech just before it began, one could see the traps he was about to lay. The White House knew that when Biden made a questionable claim—and there were plenty—many Republicans couldn’t resist going after the bait. Thus, we’re left the next day with images not of a calm and collected Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnnell (R-KY) gently shaking his head in disagreement, but with that of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) screaming “liar!” and reinforcing that normalcy gap.
More important, beyond the politics, the spectacle provided a window into the bucking bronco Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is riding, and what may lie ahead this year on critical issues such as dealing with the debt ceiling this summer, the possibility of a government shutdown later in the year, and a number of other issues that speak to the United States’ to govern itself effectively.