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The power of the State of the Union

Over the next two weeks, thousands of words will be written about President Obama’s forthcoming State of the Union address. Much of that attention will be justified. The speech will set out the administration’s goals, clarify its priorities, provide marching orders to agencies, help set the congressional agenda and coin phrases that Democrats will repeat for the foreseeable future. 

However, it is unlikely to affect the president’s approval rating. 

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Many find that hard to believe. After all, the speech has a huge audience — some 38 million Americans watched in 2012, as did 43 million in 2011. And, as we shall see, polls immediately after these speeches suggest they have roiled the country. 

Yet the evidence is clear: SOTUs have no consistent impact on the core indicator of a president’s political health: his job-approval rating.

Examining those approval ratings just before and just after SOTU addresses reveals that the average change is zero. In fact, it is more common for approval ratings to decline than to improve in the wake of SOTUs. 

Of course, averages can obscure as much as they illuminate. In only four instances has the president’s approval rating increased by 4 points or more, while it has decreased by 4 or more points on five occasions. Bill Clinton holds the title to three of the four meaningful improvements to have taken place after the SOTU. The biggest declines in approval were registered by the Bushes (two for the son, one for the father), while the “great communicator” himself, Ronald Reagan, holds title to the two other significant falloffs. 

However, the central tendency is for little movement at all. In 21 of 30 cases, approval ratings shifted by 3 points or less in either direction.

Part of the reason commentators assume these speeches affect presidents’ public standing are the polls appearing just after the speech, which suggest very positive reactions. For example, CBS has found an average of 85 percent of viewers approving of the proposals made by presidents since 2005. More telling, CNN has found an average 17-point increase in the number of viewers agreeing that the president’s policies will move the country in the right direction.

It’s fascinating to recognize that there is absolutely no consistent relationship between responses to these questions about the SOTU and the change in approval ratings the speeches generate. The strongest positive reaction to a SOTU in the CNN data was for George W. Bush’s 2002 address. What happened to Bush’s approval rating after the speech? It went down 2 points. The weakest positive reaction was also to a Bush SOTU, in 2006. The result: his approval rating went down 1 point.

The greatest increase in the number believing the president’s policies are moving the country in the right direction came in response to Clinton’s 1995 SOTU, but his approval rating went up only 2 points. Bush’s approval rating climbed 6 points after his 2005 SOTU, one of the biggest increases on record. However, the rise in the number of viewers thinking his policies would move us in the right direction was one of the smallest. 

The disconnect is almost total. Why?

First, it’s possible Gallup approval data may not measure a president’s political health quite so accurately. 

Second, while audiences for SOTUs are huge, they still comprise a minority of the country. Only twice since Nielsen began measuring in 1994 have more than a third of Americans tuned into this vital speech, and often it’s more like a quarter. Big changes in this relatively small sliver of the country are muted in the population as a whole. A 17-point movement in a quarter of the country is about 4 points in the nation as a whole. 

Finally, instant polls are just that: instant. Only the truly hardened aren’t moved immediately after hearing a president pitch for an hour. But within a few hours, as commentary points out flaws and failings, distortions and disagreements, people settle back into their preexisting habits and attitudes.

Whatever the reason, though, don’t expect a bounce from this or any other SOTU.

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.