The most important speech is irrelevant — and so long until November

President Obama started off his fifth State of the Union speech on the right foot, when he said: “Eight million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years.”

Typically the president and members of his party go to great lengths to claim that it is the genius of government, not people and businesses, that creates job. So I found it refreshing.

Unfortunately, though, that was about the only redeeming part of his speech.

I can’t say that I am surprised. The State of the Union speech, regardless of the party of the person who is giving it, has become a hollow, vapid affair that I can barely tolerate watching any more. And yes, I would say that if a Republican were president.

Defenders of this imperial tradition frequently say that for all its drawbacks, it remains a way for the president to talk to the country and set the agenda for the coming year.

The trouble with that idea is that a speech of mass consumption, like this one, no longer accomplishes that goal.

The reason that the State of the Union used to be a major event was, basically, because it was a standout event that set itself apart from the events and coverage in the media at the time. Stand amid a crowd of whispering socialites at a party and start shouting, and people will hear you.

But what happens when you are standing in a football stadium full of 80,000 screaming fans? You are drowned out, and you’re less relevant. Nobody really hears you anymore.

The change in media consumption in America over the last several decades has created this problem for presidents. Whereas before, Americans had a handful of television and radio channels at their disposal, which delivered news in chunks, today citizens have hundreds of specialized channels, radio, and a never ending pile of content on the Internet to overwhelm their senses.

Breaking through such a culture is difficult, even for the leader of the free world delivering his most important speech of the year.

Before, presidents could rely on their stature and the special nature of the speech overwhelming all coverage, being heard and seen by virtually everyone and no one else being able to match the power of the bully pulpit.  Even the president himself could find no better or more effective way of reaching people.

Not true today, when the president’s speech was available on the Internet well before he gave it, and the day after was dominated by reactions to the speech by what must seem like everyone with a computer.

This over-saturation has actually caused the entire State of the Union to become a joke of a spectacle. Watching CNN and hearing Wolf Blitzer spend nearly five minutes breaking down the president getting in his car, in order to drive two miles down the road to the Capitol building was, in a word, excruciating. Embarrassing might be another word that comes to mind.

The notion that the president must give this speech and that it must be a big deal is no longer a reflection of reality. The major priorities outlined by Obama have already been forgotten by nearly everyone, and he will enjoy no bounce in the polls from something that everyone has seen endless times before.

Perhaps it is time for presidents to do what Thomas Jefferson did and simply provide a written update on the state of our union to Congress. It would probably be as effective.

On another note, this will be my final column in the Bangor Daily News until the second week of November. I work for the Republican Governors Association, which is dedicated to electing Republican governors across the country.

This week, we began to formally engage in Maine, with the goal of helping re-elect Gov. Paul LePage. I am involved in our strategy and execution, which puts me working on the most visible and important race in the state this year.

As such, even though neither I nor my organization are able to directly coordinate with the LePage campaign given state rules, it would be inappropriate to continue writing while directly involved in this campaign. At a bare minimum I would have had to abstain from writing on the gubernatorial race, which would have left the Bangor Daily News with a columnist unable to comment on the juiciest Maine political stories this year.

Once the campaign is complete, I will be overjoyed to return and provide everyone with my insights into the campaign, such as they will be. Writing for this paper is a distinct honor, and I would like to especially thank the editors here, who have never once turned me down on a topic or changed anything other than minor grammatical errors.

See you in November.

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Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.