The State of the Union serves three broad purposes:
- It is theater, in the sense of watching the nation’s political actors perform their traditional roles (greeting the president, standing, applauding) and occasionally ad-libbing (“You lie!”) – see Justice Alito’s mouthing objections to Obama’s mischaracterization of the meaning of the recent Supreme Court decision;
- It serves as an agenda-setting device that allows a president to present his legislative “wish-list”, but without necessarily influencing any of the factors that will determine whether that wish list is fulfilled;
- It is a modern day affirmation of a tradition with roots tracing back to the Constitutional provision that presidents should, from time to time, inform Congress of the State of the Union.
What it typically does not do is provide a president with any additional political leverage, either within Congress or among the public at large. Those relationships are governed by more fundamental factors that usually swamp any short-term effects of the State of the Union speech.
This is easy to forget if you are one of those political junkies who pay attention to things like the polling of focus groups consisting of people who watched Obama’s speech, or who get your political analysis from one of those echo-chamber blog sites. For example, CNN conducted a pre- and post-speech survey and found that Obama’s address was received very positively or positively by 78% of those in the focus group. Seventy-one percent of respondents said that the agenda Obama proposed will move the country in the right direction. This assessment was echoed in blogs like Nate Silver’s, who pronounced the President’s speech a “three-run homer.”
The problem with these results is that they gauge the reaction of those who actually watched the speech – and that audience is almost always skewed toward a president’s supporters. (Hence, Silver’s assessment.) Consider this data from Gallup:
Clinton’s audience was predominantly Democrats, and Bush’s Republican (ignoring independents). I expect that Obama’s will skew toward Democrat. They are, not surprisingly, likely to gauge the speech pretty favorably (“a three-run homer!”)
However, when we look at the country as a whole, the impact of Obama’s speech is likely to be trivial. Consider this data from Gallup assessing the post-State of the Union bounce achieved by presidents dating back to Carter in 1978:
The average “bounce” across 24 State of the Union speeches is actually negative, although essentially zero. (But see Clinton’s speech in 1998 – can anyone suggest an explanation for his 10-point jump?) In short, expect Wednesday’s speech to have no impact whatsoever on Obama’s political standing among the public or within Congress.
This is not to say the speech served no purpose – it did. It is clear that Obama used it to signal a change in direction in his presidency, with a renewed emphasis on a more moderate political tone and a laser-like focus on one issue: jobs, jobs, jobs. Health care and foreign policy are on the back burner. His goal is to prevent a reprise of 1994, when Clinton’s failure to get health care through helped create conditions for a Republican landslide in the first midterm elections. For the next several months, expect the White House to be in full campaign mode as it seeks to minimize losses in the upcoming midterms.
In the meantime, I’ll post the post-speech data as soon as I get it.
P.S. Great participation and excellent comments on Wednesday’s live blogging. Max was the only one who called the over/under on the use of the word fight correctly. (Sorry, Max – no t-shirt awarded in this contest.) I count six uses by Obama of the word “fight”, not counting “firefighters”, which falls three short of the over/under I posted at the outset of the speech.