The State of the Union this week featured a few viral moments: First Lady Jill Biden hugging Ukraine's Ambassador to the U.S., bashful Stephen Breyer, images of maskless leaders convening indoors.
But the one that stuck out to me most was a line somewhere around the middle of the speech:
I admit, I chuckled, the way one chuckles at a "dad joke" you know someone has been just waiting to deploy. I immediately sent a Slack message to my team to the effect of "some speechwriter is feeling very proud of themselves over that one." You can almost imagine the glee in the meeting of writers when someone first dropped that line.
The problem? Who, besides the most inside-the-bubble nerds (myself included!) knows what the heck "Infrastructure Week" is or why that line is funny?
"Infrastructure Week" has been a running joke in Washington for a long, long while. I took a quick look through Lexis-Nexis and found the phrase's first appearance in 1993 in Canada's The Globe and Mail referencing the Ontario NDP's strategy, but it was really during the Obama Administration that "Infrastructure Week" became a tradition, where politicos and lobbyists spent a week messaging about the value of fixing roads, bridges, and so on, news cycle be damned.
By 2019, The New York Times was on the case, noting that "Infrastructure Week" was particularly an exercise in futility during the Trump years, where message discipline was nonexistent and trying to make any "week" focused on a single issue almost guaranteed President Trump would do something to blow up headlines and cause a stir on an unrelated issue.
If you've been in Washington or followed politics closely, then, the "Infrastructure Week is now Infrastructure Decade" joke was for you.
But is that who a State of the Union is primarily aimed at? Should it be? I wondered this earnestly.
I don't ask this to be snide. Again: I'm sure the speechwriter who cooked it up was very pleased with themselves. Maybe it was even Biden! Who knows. And I did chuckle!
But I would bet that no more than 5% of all of America's registered voters would tell you they'd ever heard of "Infrastructure Week." (This would be challenging to test in a poll, as many people say "sure, yeah, I've heard of that" to all sorts of things because it seems like the right answer.)
All of which is to say, it's not just about one innocuous line. It's about the question of who the White House's target audience was for the speech. It doesn't seem to have been the progressive left, which bristled at Biden's "Fund The Police" rhetoric. It wasn't exactly the Republican Party. Supposedly, the Senator from the great state of West Virginia was a top target, though he came away unmoved by the speech's call for Biden's proposed priorities as a cure for what ails us economically and fiscally.
A criticism of the Biden administration has been that they have not been focused enough on the worries of real people around things like inflation or COVID-19 fatigue. (Of White House Chief of Staff and Twitterer-In-Chief Ron Klain, there are assertions he is "too online" for the administration's own good.) You can easily point to something like a joke about infrastructure week that only a tiny handful of voters will understand as proof that maybe those in the White House need to get out of their bubbles or were focused too much on messaging to the wrong audience.
Exhibit A, via my dear friend Mary Katharine Ham:
I've seen some people respond that Klain was being self-depricating in his remark there. Fine. But just take this moment to remember: if you think Political Twitter is a reflection of reality in any way shape or form, may I direct you to this Pew study showing 90 percent of political tweets are from just 10 percent of accounts, largely a young and progressive leaning bunch. Just because something goes down well on Twitter doesn't mean it changes reality, and I'm guessing the White House would very much like to change the reality of 37% job approval among Americans at large.
However, I'll allow for this counterargument: some 38 million people tuned in to watch the speech on TV, which sounds like a lot of people until you realize that figure is lower than any other recent president's first State of the Union. Trump's and Obama's both pulled in over 45 million, and George W. Bush's topped 50 million, coming just months after the September 11th attacks. (Remember: last year's speech was just an address to a joint session of Congress, not technically a SOTU.) Most people are doing other things, living their lives.
And besides, these speeches are largely watched by people who already agree with the President, anyway.
So in that regard, if the speech's audience is already mostly political junkies and hard partisans, maybe a joke about "infrastructure week" isn't so out of place after all.
Thanks again for being a reader of Codebook. Do you know who got that line into the speech? Did you know what "infrastructure week" was before you started reading this post? Hop to the comments to start the discussion.
You can also catch my weekly radio show, "The Trendline", on SiriusXM P.O.T.U.S. Channel 124 airing Saturdays at 10 AM Eastern. This week's guests: Tony Fratto of Hamilton Place Strategies and Carlos Serra of Audisense. We're talking Russia, the ruble, Formula 1 and more.
(Cover Photo: Getty Images Pool)