Updated at 7:55 a.m. on January 21.
In looking ahead to Tuesday’s State of the Union address, let’s pause and reflect on what is the likely impact of this speech by President Obama and what audience should be the real aim of his message.
An analysis of Gallup polling data over the last 35 years reveals that the State of the Union has little to no effect on presidential approval ratings. President Clinton fared the best -- on average, his approval rose a very modest 3 percentage points after his annual addresses. Surprisingly, all other presidents’ approval ratings experienced slight declines on average. President George H.W. Bush suffered an average drop of 4 percentage points, while Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush saw average declines of a single point.
More remarkable: Reagan, arguably the greatest communicator of the bunch, was unable to move public opinion through these widely watched and covered speeches. Obama’s first State of the Union yielded a similar result. The polling data showed no impact, even though he is often lauded as a superb speaker.
Presidential consolation speeches don’t move the numbers much, either. Much has been made of Obama’s speech in Tucson, Ariz., and its similarity to the address Clinton delivered after the homegrown terror attack on an Oklahoma federal building in 1995. Clinton, while receiving a bump of 4 or 5 points from that speech, was right back at his previous approval levels within six weeks. And while some of Obama’s slight rise in polling can be attributed to his well-received and poetic speech, most probably has to do with the different bipartisan trajectory he has been on since the midterm election. It remains to be seen how long his “bump” lasts.
So what to look for? Whatever the (likely limited) impact the speech has on the general public will likely be due to his continuing to connect the dots on his bipartisan appeal and his desire to change the tone in Washington. Single speeches don’t usually move the country, but a cumulative effect of consistent communications and actions that resonate with the public does. And, of course, an improving economy would be a major help with stabilizing his numbers at a higher level.
The audience these speeches have the greatest impact on: the 535 folks gathered in the Capitol, and the folks who surround them and influence their decisions and discussions. Can Obama coalesce his party around a common agenda and build enthusiasm within those ranks? Can he keep putting pressure on the opposition party to meet him at the table to compromise? Can he lessen the effectiveness of the forces against him in Congress by his words and suggested actions in the speech?
The bottom line for Obama’s State of the Union:
1) It will have limited power with the general public unless he ties it to where he has been going in the last 60 days;
2) The key barometers on which to judge the address’s effectiveness in the days following its are those men and women who are elected every two or six years, and influentials who help drive the discussion in Washington, D.C.
Matthew Dowd is also an ABC News analyst. He will be discussing the State of the Union address Sunday on ABC's This Week.
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