The State of the Union address used to be the political news equivalent of the Super Bowl. It was the one night of the year set aside for the president to speak directly to the American people.
In the days leading up to the speech, Washington’s chattering class speculated as to what new policies or programs might be unveiled. Newspapers were scoured for leaks. Administrations floated trial balloons to see if they’d fly. The excitement in town was palpable.
The address would then drive the news cycle for several days. Political pundits would pour over the tea leaves. Editorial pages across the nation would render their judgment. And Congress would chew on the details.
But times have changed. As America’s media landscape has evolved, the State of the Union has become an important night in the political calendar – but not the important night.
Today, the president regularly communicates directly with the American people via Twitter. Whenever he wants to let Americans know what’s important to him, he takes to social media to reach a nation of people who are glued to their smart phones.
Twitter is faster, punchier and more entertaining than the formal State of the Union address. The president doesn’t need to wait for the networks to broadcast his agenda via a grand State of the Union speech. He can shape the news cycle, public opinion and policy every day in 280 characters or less.
President Donald Trump is the first president to use Twitter to dominate the national news narrative. Given his success, he is unlikely to be the last. The president has established a successful new model for how to speak to the American people, just as President John F. Kennedy did with television. Others will surely try to follow.
The lightning-fast nature of social media hasn’t just changed presidential communication. It has also transformed the playing field in Washington. With a new policy proposal or program just a tweet away, industry organizations, companies and advocacy groups must constantly be ready and on their A game – or risk getting left out of the conversation.
On Tuesday night, the eyes of the nation, particularly those in Washington, will rightfully be on the president’s State of the Union address. His words, and the reaction in the House chamber, will provide insight into what can be accomplished legislatively this year. The president may also telegraph executive actions that are in the pipeline.
Industries, interest groups, and innovators that are well-prepared to seize on the president’s comments and respond will be best positioned in the debate in Washington. That’s important not just during the State of the Union but any time – day or night – that the president decides to share his thoughts with the American people through Twitter.
Jeff Grappone led messaging and communications strategy for the Senate Republican Conference as deputy staff director and was previously appointed by President Trump to serve as the assistant secretary of labor for public Affairs; he is a senior vice president at ROKK Solutions, a bipartisan public affairs firm.
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