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The state of Bushs State of the Union

The Bush White House governs poorly but campaigns well.

One part of campaigning President Bush’s people have perfected is lowering expectations. In 2000, they had the press and public convinced that if Bush could avoid drooling into the camera for 20 minutes during the debate, it would be a win.

Just in time for the State of the Union, my friend Matt Dowd, the downer in chief, was back at it, predicting the speech would be a PR failure in a memo “leaked” to everyone in Washington with a keyboard. He was right, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Dowd wanted the press to know that their story line “that says the president has to move his approval numbers coming out of the speech” was wrong, having been premised on “the belief that presidents historically enjoy a “State of the Union bounce.” Dowd argued that, on average, presidential approval ratings drop after the State of the Union.

Of course, in truth, the reality is complex, and Dowd’s data are mostly irrelevant. By any indicator one chooses, except audience size, the president did not have a particularly successful speech.

The State of the Union is a unique opportunity to spend an hour talking directly to a hefty chunk of America, unfiltered and unedited. Make no mistake, it is a unique opportunity. Nielsen reports 42 million people watched Bush’s performance. Compare that to last year’s convention speeches, another highly touted communication opportunity — about 24 million watched Kerry, and just under 28 million watched Bush. So if there is ever a time presidents have the public’s attention, this is it.

(I’m amused by governors who treat their State of State speeches as similar opportunities. Appearing on public-access cable just after local celebrities like “Naked George,” their ratings are near zero. In a California focus group days after Arnold gave his State of the State, only two people had even heard about it, while every participant knew all about the governor’s motorcycle accident. Ok, it’s not a poll, but it is what passes for a humorous polling story, meriting inclusion on that basis.)

Despite capturing public attention, most presidents don’t alter their approval ratings in the aftermath, just as Dowd asserts.

Of course, some have in the past. Bill Clinton’s approval rating jumped six points after his 1996 speech and 10 points after his 1998 address. Only one poll has come out to date with an approval rating, and Rasmussen reports Bush’s approval down three points in the days after the speech.

There are other measures of success, and Bush’s speech lags on most of them. According to Gallup, 48 percent of those who watched Bush had a “very positive” reaction — the lowest since Gallup began keeping track in 1998, except for Bush’s own 2004 appearance (45 percent were very positive).

Over 80 percent of those who watched Clinton’s speeches were convinced afterward that he was leading us in the right direction. Bush’s speech convinced just 44 percent of those who saw it that the economy was getting better and only 40 percent that our situation in Iraq was improving. Those failures are particularly striking when one considers that only 25 percent of Bush’s audience was Democrats, while 52 percent were Republicans.

Even more important than history is political necessity. A president’s approval rating is his most potent weapon. Bush’s rating is already lower than that of any other second-term president at a comparable point, except for Richard Nixon, soon to resign.

To remain a political force, Bush needs to improve his approval rating. He just blew one of the best chances he will have to accomplish that goal.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.