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When States of the Union Matter and When They Don't When States of the Union Matter and When They Don't

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State of the Union 2014

When States of the Union Matter and When They Don't

This one: Not so much.

President Truman making his State of the Union speech.(Francis Miller/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

photo of Alex Seitz-Wald
January 28, 2014

It's State of the Union time again, meaning wall-to-wall media coverage and all the trappings of importance. But with so much incomplete from President Obama's 2013 State of the Union agenda (not to mention his earlier ones), is it really worth all the pageantry and potential security risk of locking the entirety of the U.S. government in a single room? Plenty of Americans would probably be very happy to see the president go back to sending Congress a letter.

But the annual speeches are not entirely worthless. Last year, 33.5 million Americans tuned in. That's down from previous years (more than 52 million watched Obama's joint address to Congress in 2009), but still way, way more than any normal presidential speech would garner. Getting about 10 percent of the country's entire population to listen to what you have to say has to be worth something, right?

Jeff Cummins, a political scientist at California State University (Fresno), investigated just this question and found something that, once you hear it, is blindingly obvious, but would never know it from the way the media covers the speeches the same way year after year, going all the way back to Lyndon Johnson in 1964.


Based on data from 1954 to 2000, Cummins found that there's really two kinds of States of the Union worth mentioning: ones when the president's party controls Congress, and ones where his party does not, like this year's.

In 50 Years, Media Hype Over State of the Union Hasn't Changed

When the president's party is in power in both chambers, the speech is a pretty good road map for what will happen in Congress the next year. But when the president's party does not control Congress, the speech doesn't tell you much, and that's especially true when partisanship levels are high, as they are now.

"I still think it's the most important speech of the year, and lays out the president's priorities for the year," says Cummins. "But I'm always kind of amazed how the media harp on the president not getting anything done. Of course he's not getting anything done: He doesn't have a friendly Congress."

Nonetheless, lawmakers are not the president's only audience. He always wants to sway public opinion and influence the larger debate. Here, the story is a little less hopeless for Obama.

The academic research suggests that presidents can't really change the public's mind on any given issue, but they can at least (maybe) put an issue on the map by raising its salience in peoples' minds.

The importance of presidential speeches in general is probably vastly overrated, as political scientist George Edwards argues in his classic book on the limits of the bully pulpit. And that's even more true now that television audiences are declining, thanks to competing media options.

"Time and again, I would speak on television, to a joint session of Congress," Ronald Reagan once said of his push to aid the Contra rebels. "But the polls usually found that large numbers of Americans cared little or not at all about what happened in Central America … and, among those who did care, too few cared … to apply the kind of pressure I needed on Congress."

Even one of the most cited examples of the power of a good speech, an apparent 10-point bump in Bill Clinton's approval rating after his 1993 health care speech, turns out to be the artifact of a single outlier poll.

Nonetheless, presidents can at least bring issues to the fore, as Princeton's Brandice Canes-Wrone notes, even though it's hard to tell who's leading whom, since they tend to focus big speeches on issues that are already popular.

This agenda-setting power would be valuable to Obama on any issue, but especially on income inequality, the focus of Tuesday night's speech.

If income inequality were like, say, immigration, where both parties have competing policy solutions, then being able to win over voters might be more important than merely raising the topic. But that's not really the case. Democrats want to make addressing inequality a top priority, and to use the power of the government here aggressively, while Republicans are more concerned with addressing inequality by getting the government out of the way in places like public education and promoting self-advancement.

So, if the president can do nothing more than raise income inequality in the public consciousness, that's a win for him.

Still, it's a pretty modest one. And with one chamber of Congress firmly in control of hyper-partisan Republicans, don't expect much of what Obama proposes to become law anyway.

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