Hardcore political junkies will make the speech appointment viewing, but plenty more will opt out. Ratings for this year’s speech will undoubtedly be lower than last year’s. And it will have no impact on public opinion whatsoever. As FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten noted on Sunday, “Since Carter, the average net change in a president’s approval rating between before and after the SOTU is 0 points.” What’s left is a made-for-television event full of empty calories and little political consequence. Tom Brokaw, the moral grandpa of TV news, tweeted that the State of the Union is “a kabuki exercise. reps of potus party hop up and down, like electronic programmed moles. Oppo goes dark.”Some unscripted moments sometimes entertain and/or outrage. As when my old frat brother Joe Wilson yelled that Barack Obama was a liar. Or Justice Samuel Alito was caught muttering about Obama. A water bottle-grabbing Marco Rubio, in a Republican response, also comes to mind.
Brokaw left out of the embarrassing spectacle of random congressmen lining up hours beforehand, along the aisle of the House floor, just to be seen on camera touching the president, but he’s right. Brokaw’s admonition, though, will do little to stop decision-makers in the media from manufacturing drama where there isn’t any. The networks will put their biggest names on beautiful sets overlooking panoramas of Washington, executives will dash into town from New York on the Delta Shuttle to lord over their D.C. bureau control rooms, and producers will commission snap polls and maybe even a Frank Luntz focus group. Hopefully we can hear from voters in Trump country. We haven’t heard enough from them. Pundits will spend the day and night chewing over Trump’s promises about infrastructure and immigration, even though those agenda items will be gunked up in the washer and dryer of House and Senate committees, if they make it that far. Trump has no goodwill to speak of with the Democratic caucuses in either chamber. At least seven House Democrats are skipping the speech altogether. Those seven will surely be among those to vote for Trump’s impeachment if they take back the House in November. And while roughly 800,000 Dreamers are waiting for a sign that the White House will protect them from deportation, whatever the president says about DACA won’t matter much, either. Congressional leaders in both parties will go back to hammering out a possible immigration deal on their own the next day, while Trump puts on a hat and pretends to make phone calls from an empty Oval Office desk.