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

This one: Not so much.

President Harry S. Truman making his State of the Union speech.  (Photo by Francis Miller//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
Jan. 28, 2014, 6:29 a.m.

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.

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.