WASHINGTON — From time to time, some intrepid White House speechwriters will wage a quiet battle to kill off the State of the Union address as we know it, or at least shrink it so that it is no longer the stylized piece of theater in which has become

Concerned that the annual address has become stale, presidential advisers over the years have tried to shake it up. They have considered removing it from the Capitol and moving it to the central states, shortening it by two-thirds, or sticking to a single issue. But inertia would always take hold. No president wants to forgo the pomp and ceremony, let alone the millions of eyes fixed on him, as he walks through the House chamber after the resounding eight-word sign: “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!”

The state of the union can be strong or getting stronger. But the state of state of the union ADDRESS it is immutable. It is not about change.

“It’s one of the largest audiences a president has,” said Kathleen Sebelius, a cabinet secretary in the Barack Obama administration. «With a captive audience and people tuning in at the same time, it’s an opportunity to get across themes and messages that are so important to setting a tone.»

Joe Biden’s speech on Tuesday night is expected to mirror in many ways all the speeches made by every president since Ronald Reagan perfected the formula in the 1980s. There will be all the old conventions: the call for guests at the Chamber of the Chamber, the self-congratulatory list of achievements, and the solemn promise to address what remains unfinished.

Lawmakers from the president’s party will stand up and applaud throughout, while the opposition party will largely stand still.

Nothing says that the leadership has to develop in this way. Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution simply states that the president «from time to time shall give to Congress information on the State of the Union and recommend for its consideration such measures as he deems necessary and expedient.»

In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson gave his report in person rather than in writing, reviving a tradition that had expired with John Adams in the 1800s. Not everyone was happy to see the return of the in-person model.

«I am sorry for this cheap and tasteless imitation of English royalty.»

Senator John Sharp Williams in 1913

“Sorry to see the old Federalist custom of throne speeches revived,” Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi sneered, as recounted in Arthur Schlesinger’s three-volume history of the State of the Union address. «I am sorry for this cheap and tasteless imitation of English royalty.»

Doubts about the speech only grew when it assumed its modern form, sparking something of a rebellion among the White House aides tasked with writing it every year.

In 1998, Jeff Shesol, a speechwriter in Bill Clinton’s White House, wrote an internal memo calling for a shorter, tighter speech that focused on an important idea.

Nobody listened.

“They basically patted me on the head and said, ‘You’re adorable,’” Shesol recalled.

If anything, the swelling got worse. Two years later, Clinton delivered a speech that lasted an hour and a half, the longest State of the Union address on record. At 9,000 words, Clinton’s speech was nine times longer than the first speech given by George Washington in 1790.

“Speech has been an increasingly bankrupt exercise for generations,” Shesol said. «It has felt increasingly routine, often excessively empty and removed from the reality of our national and political life.»

The audience has been declining. Biden’s first State of the Union address drew an audience of 38 million. On the contrary, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and Donald Trump he drew 45 million to 52 million to his maiden addresses.

The attendance of the Supreme Court magistrates, who are invited every year, has also been falling. Chief Justice John Roberts complained in 2010 that the speech had become a «pep rally.”

“I’m not sure why we’re there,” Roberts said.

Neither did his teammates. Four of the nine judges skipped the event last year.

One reason to scrap the speech in its current form is the heightened political polarization in American life, say former White House officials. Watching from home, Americans tend to view discourse along ideological lines that have been calcified. TO study in 2020 found that partisan divisions in the US had grown faster over the past four decades than in other large democracies, including the UK and Canada. In the late 1970s, a typical American rated his party 27 points higher than the other major party. By 2016, that number had risen to almost 46 points.

In these troubled times, it is simply unrealistic to believe that the president can deliver a national message that will soften such divisions and truly unify the nation, say veterans of past White Houses.

The speech «basically reinforces divisions within the country, rather than broadening support at home for what a president wants to do,» said Leon Panetta, White House chief of staff under Clinton and later a cabinet secretary in the administration. of Obama.

Did the Obama White House consider rethinking the speech?

«Every year!» said Cody Keenan, Obama’s former speechwriting director.

“Every year we’d sit there and say, ‘This is the year we’re going to do something short,’” Keenan recalled. “We even sometimes talk about trying to do it somewhere else: ‘What if we don’t do it on Capitol Hill this year? What if we go out into the field?’”

One idea the staff brought up was to deliver the 2012 speech at the Ohio State University basketball arena, he said.

«He [television] The networks rightly said, ‘Well, we’re not going to carry it then.’ Because if you do it in an arena somewhere with a bunch of Americans, then it just becomes a political speech, and why would we take it on prime time?’”

The speech persevered. Year after year, Obama, considered one of the great presidential orators in history, took the stage and trotted out a series of forgettable one-liners intended to stage a speech that has become increasingly unwieldy. In 2011, his mantra was “win the future”. Four years later, he was building «a new foundation» for the country.

Part of the problem may be that the State of the Union tries to do so many things at once: make the president look like president, appease interest groups who want their pet topics mentioned, and satisfy cabinet secretaries who insist where your priorities get at least one mention.

“You felt like a winner if your policy was mentioned and a loser if it wasn’t mentioned,” said Sebelius, who led the Department of Health and Human Services.

It could all infuriate the stylists at the speechwriting shop.

«Purely speaking as a writer, a terrible reason to put something in the speech is that so-and-so would be mad if we didn’t,» Keenan said.

Trump arrived. The question the experts posed before his speeches was whether the president would deliver his State of the Union address without the pugnacity he displayed on his daily Twitter feed or without going off on tangents, as he did in most of his scripted speeches.

“Of course, under Trump, everything had an absolute looking-glass quality,” Shesol said. “There would be a facsimile of a regular, ordinary president for 50 or 60 minutes. And then that night, he would go on Twitter and do his thing.

«The futility of the exercise has never been more apparent,» he added.

What is the future of management? Panetta imagines what she would do if she returned to the White House. He said he would advise the president to cut the speech down to 10 to 15 minutes, focusing on his most essential priorities, and ask lawmakers in the chamber to stay in their seats and just listen.

But others bet that the speech is here to stay. The State of the Union is simply too tempting a setting for a politician to voluntarily abandon.

«No White House is going to abandon him,» Keenan said. “The future is what it has been for the last few decades. Nobody wants to write a 30,000 word letter and send it to Congress. So speechwriters are stuck doing this at the moment.»