The Constitution requires that the president “…give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union…” In the age of mass media, beginning with Harding and Coolidge on radio and Truman on television, the annual address is now much more a speech to the entire nation.
Tuesday night more than 90 million eyeballs were on President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package Trump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal First rally for far-right French candidate Zemmour prompts protests, violence MORE as he delivered his first State of the Union address. The television audience, pegged by Nielsen at 45.6 million, was delivered over a dozen networks.
In years past, the run-up to the State of the Union address far exceeded the speech itself. This year, the media again hyped the evening, but the post-event coverage proved to be more important.
The speech itself deserved, and received, high marks. A CBS poll showed 75 percent approval of the address, a good number by any accounting.
President Trump used the occasion to highlight the strong state of the union and its economy in particular. With GDP growth at levels not seen for several years, unemployment at a 17-year low and consumer confidence rising with wages and fatter paychecks from tax cuts, there was a lot to talk about.
He also used the opportunity to lay out and rally the nation behind his agenda. He very effectively used the bully pulpit, appealing directly to the American people on his plans for immigration reform, rebuilding our roads, bridges, pipelines and ports, and strengthening international trade and national security.
He looked presidential, was forceful but optimistic, and delivered well-prepared words without deviating from the text or taking the bait of Democratic barbs.
His renowned skills as a pitchman were on full display, especially with his repeated use of special guests — ordinary folks with extraordinary stories.
Through them, he wove a visually compelling tapestry around the theme of “A New American Moment.” It was reminiscent of “Morning in America.”
As the nation watched, the mere words of the president’s address were not the key to the impressions formed in the minds of his countrymen. Ninety-three percent of communication’s impact is non-verbal. The majority is visual, and television is a visual medium.
What’s seen is more important than what’s said. What the American people saw was a deep contrast between a hopeful and optimistic right side of the aisle, and a dour and dispirited left.
Let’s face it: It’s not easy to be the opposition party at the State of the Union. It’s the president’s night, wrapped in all the pomp and pageantry of official Washington. To be less than enthusiastic in response is understandable.
What is incomprehensible was the Democrats’ all-too-apparent inability to get off their hands at the mention of “In God We Trust,” standing for our national anthem or an economy producing 21 million new jobs.
Even more puzzling was the sight of the Congressional Black Caucus glumly greeting news of unemployment at all-time lows among African Americans.
The lasting image in the minds of many was House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiUS expected to announce diplomatic boycott of Beijing Olympics soon: report Pressure grows to remove Boebert from committees Lawmakers remember Bob Dole: 'Bona fide American hero' MORE (D-Calif.) looking like she had just bitten a lemon. It wasn’t a pretty picture for Democrats to contemplate being used in every hotly contested race this fall. No wonder that the Democratic candidate in next month’s special election in Pennsylvania 18 is campaigning on a pledge not to vote for Pelosi if he’s elected.
The aftermath of the speech was equally telling. While Rep. Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedySupreme Court confounding its partisan critics Warren says she'll run for reelection to Senate Five centrist Democrats oppose Pelosi for Speaker in tight vote MORE III (D-Mass.) delivered the official response, there were at least four other Democratic responses going out over other networks. They ranged from left of center to very left of center to the outer limits of left field.
The responses laid bare a party that is deeply fractured, trying to figure out what will put things together again. Their only unified message seems to be a reflexive “resistance” to anything Donald Trump says or does.
That was the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublican Ohio Senate candidate slams JD Vance over previous Trump comments Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Countering the ongoing Republican delusion MORE message in 2016. It didn’t work then. It’s less likely to work now. Most Americans have figured out that Trump is the president and, no matter your personal view of him, you’ll have to work with him to get things done for the good of the nation.
President Trump’s “I’s” were immigration reform, infrastructure improvement, international trade and internal security. He provided an optimistic agenda for peace and prosperity. Americans want to rally behind a president who signals that our best days lie ahead and shows the way to get there.
The specific words of the State of the Union address are not long remembered. The impressions it creates are. A different set of “eyes” saw those.
The 13 Democrats who stayed away might have had a better idea than those who attended and sat on their hands even when good news was being served. When millions are watching, the “eyes” always have it.
Charlie Gerow, CEO of Quantum Communications and one of Pennsylvania’s most influential Republicans, is a nationally recognized leader in strategic communications and trusted advisor to leaders in government and business.