President Obama’s poll numbers have been improving since the lame-duck session of Congress, but that didn’t translate to increased television viewership of Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.
According to research by the Nielsen Company, 42.8 million viewers tuned in to hear him address Congress. That’s an 18 percent decrease from his joint address to Congress in 2009, which netted 52.3 million viewers, and an 11 percent decrease from last year’s State of the Union, which 48 million watched.
Still, some undercounting might be in the works. The speech was carried by 11 networks – a historical high that was also achieved last year – but the speech was also widely available online, where many people watch television nowadays. The White House broadcast the speech live via its own website, and it was distributed by many news outlets (National Journal included). Considering that Obama’s inauguration drew 37.8 million – the second highest in history, behind Ronald Reagan’s nearly 42 million – Tuesday’s numbers aren’t too bad.
Plus, his other speeches have drawn big crowds. The speech Obama delivered in Tucson, Ariz. in the wake of the shootings drew 30.8 million viewers and his addresses to Congress about health care in February 2009 and September 2009 drew 52.4 million and 32.1 million viewers, respectively.
Obama also did fairly well compared to his two predecessors. Bill Clinton usually attracted audiences in the low 40 million range, except for his first joint address to Congress in 1993, which drew almost 67 million viewers, and his 1998 address, just 10 days after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, when he grabbed 53 million.
President Bush’s numbers were all over the map. He had low viewership – only 39 million – during his first address to Congress, but viewership spiked during his 2002 and 2003 State of the Union addresses in the period between the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq invasion. In those years, he drew about 52 million and 62 million people, respectively. Later, his numbers fluctuated between 38 and 45 million.