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SOTU: Well liked but ineffective

The 43 million Americans who watched the speech loved it. CBS conducted an online poll among those who intended to watch the address and re-interviewed those who did. More than eight in 10 viewers approved of the proposals in the speech, six in 10 credited the president with a clear plan to create jobs and seven in 10 believed the president shares their priorities. 

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Equally striking were the improvements in evaluations of the president among those who watched the speech. Viewers registered a 13-point increase in the perception that the president shares their priorities. Similarly, the number believing the president has a jobs plan jumped 19 points, while the percentage who approve of his economic plans rose 21 points. Even approval of healthcare reform increased 13 points, while belief that the president’s plan will reduce the deficit rose by 15. 

CNN’s phone poll of those who watched the State of the Union found 84 percent reacting positively, making it one of the more well-received addresses, and 77 percent saying the president’s policies would move the country in the right direction. Before-and-after questioning in this poll also demonstrates improved standing for the president among viewers, on a variety of indicators — the number saying the president’s policies were moving the country in the right direction increased 16 points.

Using a question similar to CNN’s, Gallup found 70 percent of those who watched offering a positive reaction. 

All in all, a fine showing by any standard. But did it change Americans’ basic views of President Obama? The strong positive reactions and the improvements along so many dimensions suggest the president should emerge with a stronger approval rating, while history would caution against any such expectations. 

History wins.

Gallup’s nightly tracking during the week before the speech found 50 percent approving of the president’s performance. The average in the days after the speech: an identical 50 percent. No impact.

President Obama’s approval rating in the eight national polls before the speech averaged 50 percent, the same as the average in the three polls since the speech. Again, no movement. So almost all the evidence suggests that President Obama did not benefit from a State of the Union bounce. 

(PPP’s robo-polling for Daily Kos paints a slightly different picture, suggesting a four-point increase in approval after the speech. However, PPP’s pre-speech rating was unusually low and the “jump” left approval at the same 50 percent most everyone else recorded before and after the address.)

The lesson: It’s awfully difficult to move public opinion on summary indicators, like job approval, with speeches. Even well-received, widely watched speeches rarely make a dent. Only four times has the State of the Union addresses raised approval ratings, and in three of those cases the president’s name was Clinton. Any individual presidential speech by itself, even the most important, has limited impact on core evaluations of presidential performance.

In part that’s because people soon leave the aura, drama and argumentation of the speech behind, returning to whatever circumstances they faced beforehand. Another reason for the minimal effect is the partisan disposition of the viewers. All the polls this year, as in the recent past, reveal that a president’s audience is disproportionately composed of fellow partisans. In the CBS poll, for instance, Democrats enjoyed an eight-point edge in party identification among all voters, but a 23-point margin among speech watchers. CNN’s poll suggested those who watched the speech were nine to 10 points more Democratic than the nation as a whole. 

The converted, to whom presidents preach, already approve of him leaving little room for movement, and less opportunity to bring the country together. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.