First, it’s as close as most people get to seeing the modern process for governing. The way our government works nowadays basically boils down to this: The president acts as an agenda-setter and coordinator, but Congress has to, you know, craft and pass a bill. The State of the Union embodies that dynamic, what presidential scholar Richard Neustadt referred to as “separate institutions sharing power.” The president lays out a legislative agenda, in front of Congress, and it can respond or not.
In other words, while the speech itself doesn’t tend to change much, it’s a useful symbol. Although the president is at the center of the event, it tends to revolve around him asking Congress to do something, and we can actually see Congress, sitting there, reacting to the speech. The president can address the members of the other party in Congress and ask for their cooperation; or, as Obama did in 2015, he can acknowledge the depth of the policy disagreements and challenge his partisan opponents to work with him anyway. Of course, this year a number of Democratic lawmakers are skipping the event. Others are bringing “Dreamers” — people who entered the country without documents as children — in order to highlight the issue and express disagreement with the president’s actions up to this point. Most people aren’t going to read policy briefs about the issues at stake, but tonight’s event allows them to witness the ways in which their elected officials are treating these policy differences.