The State of the Union ain’t what it used to be.
Sounds like a statement, if found in print or said on-air, that would instantly draw e-missiles from angry White House officials. Instead, top aides to President Barack Obama have fully embraced that reality in rolling out the administration’s agenda for 2015.
Instead of prepping the President to unveil a laundry list of policy proposals in one speech on a cold January night, the White House has offered State of Union “spoilers” over the past two weeks.
Take the President’s plan to make community college free for millions of young Americans. Yes, he delivered many of the details in a standard campaign-style speech in East Tennessee.
“Don’t tell anybody I said this. I’m giving you the inside scoop,” Obama joked to the crowd outside of Knoxville.
But Obama actually “broke the news,” as one official described it, in a video message on the White House Facebook page. The video attracted 8 million views, becoming the most successful White House Facebook posting ever, a senior aide said.
The data-driven White House has seen the numbers. More than 48 million viewers watched the President’s State of the Union in 2010. Roughly 33 million people tuned in last year, a 31% decrease.
“We’re programming around that fact,” a White House official said of the State of the Union’s declining importance in the lives of most Americans.
Programming means, in some cases, going around the White House press corps to deliver the administration’s message.
In an email, one White House official described “five new/interesting ways we are setting up State of the Union.” Note the listicle.
Besides the Facebook posting, the White House has turned to other social media outlets – Medium, Linkedin, Upworthy – to tease the State of the Union speech.
On Linkedin, the popular website devoted to career networking, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett announced Obama’s proposal for improving paid sick leave policies. Her posting offered a caution to employers – benefits matter.
“Keep in mind that nearly one in two working parents has turned down a job because it would not work for their family. Don’t let your job be one of those,” Jarrett said.
The White House also blasted out an email that asked millions of Americans to submit a “memo for the President” on what proposals should be included in the annual address.
“We’re doing something we haven’t done before,” senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer says in the email. “We’re going to send a special memo to the President, sharing what the American people would like to see progress in during the time we have left – and why.”
A memo based on the submissions will appear in the President’s nightly briefing book prior to the speech, an official added.
Former Obama White House spokesman Tommy Vietor, who agreed the State of the Union may have lost some of its luster, called the administration’s spoiler approach “genius”
“The State of the Union has always been a big, unwieldy speech packed with far too much newsy stuff for one evening. This is just a really smart way to get your message out,” Vietor said.
This is hardly the first time the White House has shopped its policies through alternative media. “Between Two Ferns,” a mock interview of the President conducted by comedian Zach Galifianakis, was used to promote Obamacare. The stunt resulted in a surge of visitors to a revamped Healthcare.gov.
“The video itself was causing the action that we hoped it would cause,” then-White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
The White House has utilized social media during previous State of the Union speeches.
“You’re invited: The 2014 State of the Union Social,” is how the White House described its interactive outreach last year. Viewers who watched the speech on the White House website saw an “enhanced version” of the address, featuring “graphics, data and charts that help explain policies and the issues.”
A White House official said all of that will happen again and then some.
“It’s going to be really good,” the aide boasted.