Election Day will be a full nine months and 13 days away when President Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday. But with the president struggling in the polls and under daily assault from the Republican candidates, it’s clear he is already in the thick of the campaign. Even at this distance, the occasion gives the president one of his two best, least-filtered moments to reach Americans during the year.
Once he completes this address, Obama will have to wait until after Labor Day to deliver his prime-time acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C. Until then, he will have to depend on often-hostile news coverage and paid advertising to get his message out. It makes the State of the Union address both one of the great opportunities for any president running for another term and one of the best advantages that an incumbent enjoys over a challenger.
Start with the setting: the ornate chamber of the House of Representatives, where so much history has been made. Add in the cheering members who reach out to touch the president as he strides down the aisle and the speaker of the House forced to sit attentively behind him during the speech, showing respect for the leader of the other party. Then factor in the audience arrayed before the president—diplomats, Supreme Court justices, and uniformed leaders of the armed forces. And don’t forget the audience outside the chamber: For his first two State of the Union speeches, Obama was watched by 48 million Americans in 2010 and 43 million in 2011.
The stature gap with his challengers could not be wider. Other than in televised debates (when he was getting beat up by the other candidates), Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has been riding his campaign bus to diners, delis, drafty school gyms, church halls, and barns. His biggest audience on a good day? Maybe 1,000, but usually in the dozens. His attire? Often jeans and an open collar. And the perks? Well, his son Tagg tweeted a photo this month of the candidate crouched down on the bus trying to duct-tape shut a vent blowing cold air on him.
The State of the Union speech is not an occasion to bash Congress.
This benefit is not unique to Obama, of course: Since television networks began carrying the annual address in prime time in 1965, seven presidents have enjoyed this edge over their challengers. Not all have used the home-field advantage wisely. Perhaps no president missed the opportunity as badly as George W. Bush in 2004. While he was speaking, the Democrats were stuck in New Hampshire, locked in an unseemly slugfest. But Bush gave one of the most forgettable of all addresses, filled with clichés and remarkable only for his decision to talk about steroids in baseball. He was rewarded with a 4-point drop in his approval rating, the worst post-State of the Union decline recorded by Gallup for a president in an election year. Even amid august trappings, a president is expected to say something of substance and have an agenda to promote.
“This is an opportunity to set the table not just for the campaign but for a second administration,” says William A. Galston, chief domestic policy adviser for Bill Clinton who worked on several of the president’s addresses. “It’s an opportunity to explain to the American people how a second term would build effectively on the foundation laid in the first.” Clinton, blessed with a strong economy, used his 1996 speech to champion small-bore initiatives like V-chips for TV content ratings and school uniforms, but Obama needs to “talk about ideas that are equal in scope and scale to the size of the problems we confront,” Galston says. “A speech has to be suited to the moment.” Presidents also understand that election years are the toughest times to get legislation through Congress, so his presentation of issues like jobs and taxes are critical.
Another lesson is that the State of the Union speech is not an occasion to bash Congress, no matter how tempting it may be. No incumbent has done that. Instead, they have repeatedly, as George H.W. Bush did in 1992, called on foes “to put partisanship aside and get the job done because it’s the right thing to do.” The two presidents who most oozed bipartisanship in their addresses—and received the biggest boosts in popularity—were Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Clinton in 1996. Historically, “together” is one of the most-used words in these speeches, and Clinton (18 mentions) and Reagan (10) favored the word most often. Obama will probably not spend the speech “throwing down the gauntlet to the Congress,” Galston says. Even though the president has scored points with recent attacks, he says, “in a State of the Union, that is not the right tone to strike.”
If Obama misreads the moment and throws away the huge incumbency advantage he enjoys, he will have to wait until the September convention before he gets his next chance.
Sarah Boxer contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the January 21, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.