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The state of the State of the Union address

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden will give his State of the Union address on Tuesday. That's the annual event where he delivers his policy agenda to Congress. The address comes at a time when he's tackling a lot of politically charged issues like high inflation and police violence, all while he's trying to find his footing with a new Republican majority in the House that's intent on using their oversight authority to the fullest. So while the address is technically to Congress, it is also a chance to speak directly to the American people and, for that matter, to the world. So we wondered if it still does. Does the event still have an impact as a television event and as a communications tool? We called NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik for his take. David, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Pleasure.

MARTIN: So just to set the history here, the president is required to deliver a report to Congress, but he doesn't have to give a speech. He could just send a letter.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah.

MARTIN: And actually, presidents did that for years until Woodrow Wilson personally appeared before Congress in 1913, and then Franklin Roosevelt adopted that practice. And since then, it's become a tradition for the president to actually show up in person and deliver a speech. So is this a big deal? I mean, is this something that a lot of people watch?

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. It's the biggest night for the president in terms of, on an ordinary given year, talking to the public - talking to the American people. You can say that it's not all that it once was, and we can get into that. But, you know, 38 million some people - Americans watched it last year on television, and that does not include all of the people who saw elements of it on subsequent news reports, radio reports, excerpted on podcasts or YouTube presentations or on social media.

MARTIN: When you say that it isn't what it was, tell me what you mean by that.

FOLKENFLIK: I looked back three decades ago to Bill Clinton's first State of the Union address, and Clinton got almost twice of the audience that Joe Biden got last year. So that tells you that there is a real winnowing of what we think of as the conventional linear television audience that is real-time television audience. And yet I do think that there's this echo effect - you know, the ability to create viral moments depending on the skill of the rhetoric and the president delivering it and the way in which they construct the argument they're making to the American people.

MARTIN: President Biden isn't - how can I put this? - is not necessarily known for his abilities in this area. He's gaffe-prone. I don't think it's a political statement to say that, you know? He's prone to misspeaking. I don't know how significant that is. I think maybe we'll find out. But what are you looking for as you as you evaluate this event?

FOLKENFLIK: Right. The State of the Union kind of makes critics of us all, right? It's oftentimes a question of looking at the performance. Joe Biden is, as you say, often gaffe-prone, has been for decades. He has struggled with a stutter that makes it, at times, you know, a real challenge for him to surmount certain words. And he has to use others to get through it. He's talked in - sometimes kind of in a very heartfelt and eloquent way about that challenge for himself. He needs to show the country that he has a coherent worldview at a time where, you know, we are funding the Ukraine battle against the Russian invasion. We have these increasing and, at times, a little baffling tensions with China that we've seen play out over the years and just in the past couple of days. So he's going to have to be able to unify the nation and say he's got this, even at a time where he no longer has full Democratic control of Congress. And therefore, a lot of what he's going to talk about is going to be the successes he's had, as opposed to what he's going to be able to accomplish in the year ahead.

MARTIN: That was NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thank you so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

MARTIN: And on Tuesday night, we're going to do something that we've never done before at NPR. We're going to put out a bilingual broadcast of the State of the Union address. This will be a second program. You can join A Martínez for in-depth analysis and reaction in both English and in Spanish. It's NPR's special bilingual coverage of the 2023 State of the Union address. We hope you'll check with your member station for details at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.