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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4682) }}

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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4684) }}

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Source:
PEAK CONFIDENCE
Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Source:
CITIZENS UNITED PT. 2?
Movie Based on ‘Clinton Cash’ to Debut at Cannes
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."

Source:
×