RESOLVED: The State of the Union speech is overrated

Amid the avalanche of coverage of President Obama's fifth State of the Union -- he's reading the speech! -- it's important to remember one simple fact: The State of the Union's ability to shape public perception of a president and his agenda is, um, way overrated.


Duke. Perennially overrated.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

A quick search of the Washington Post showed 5,069 items containing the phrase "State of the Union" appearing on our website over the past 24 hours. (Sidebar: The Fix is as guilty as anyone. We have flooded the zone with current and historical readouts of SOTU over the past five days and this marks our fifth post of the day related to the speech.)  Virtually every news organization in the country is live-blogging, live-tweeting, live-streaming and live-everything-else-ing the speech.  Every interest group on earth -- literally -- is making its people available to comment on it. Heck, the Republican party is giving four -- yes, FOUR -- responses to it. (Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is handling the official response, Utah Sen. Mike Lee will give the tea party response, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul will offer a response and Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will deliver the response in Spanish.)

This flurry of attention and coverage is inversely proportional to a) the speech's ability to sway public opinion and b) the speech's chances of becoming a major moment, rhetorically, in a president's time in office.

"It's a tribal Washington ritual, so of course we overrate it and overstate it," said Joel Johnson, the managing director of the Glover Park Group and a former senior staffer in the Clinton White House. "Ten [or] 20 years ago, a President could get a two-week bounce out of a strong speech. Today, even a great speech will buy you two days, tops -- that's just how it is."

We recently ranked the top five best/most memorable/most impactful State of the Union speeches since Woodrow Wilson delivered the modern version of the address in 1913. While there are, without question, SOTU speeches of genuine import over history -- FDR's "four freedoms", George W. Bush's "axis of evil" -- we struggled to come up with five (including the Wilson speech that distinguished itself less by what he said than that he gave it at all) speaks to how few are genuinely remembered as major moments.  The most recent of those speeches was more than a decade ago -- Bush's first State of the Union address after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The very nature of the speech itself plays a major role in its traditionally ho-hum content. Because it is, quite literally, a report from the president to the public on the state of our union, it's a) long and b) it's  bit of a patchwork designed to offer both a report card and a prognostication on virtually every area of domestic and foreign policy. As former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau wrote in a piece for the Daily Beast:

When you have to cover every issue from pre-K to natural gas to Iran in a single speech, it’s also difficult to do justice to any one topic. President Obama always wanted the speech to “sing,” as he put it, but he also spent hours ensuring the argument for each issue was carefully, logically constructed.

Then there is the debate over whether the State of the Union -- or absolutely any speech -- can move public opinion in any lasting meaningful way.  John Sides, of the Monkey Cage Blog, writes that "the bigger question is whether a good speech can boost Obama’s approval numbers.  Most likely, the answer is no.  I think this fact has largely sunk in across the commentariat, but perhaps it bears repeating. Speeches, no matter how eloquent or well-received, rarely make a president more popular." As evidence, Sides cites political scientist George Edwards' work entitled "On Deaf Ears" and published in  2006. Here's a look at some of the major speeches on George W. Bush's term and how much (or not) they moved the needle:

Image courtesy of George Edwards' "On Deaf Ears
Image courtesy of George Edwards' "On Deaf Ears

While Edwards' study of the poll impact of "big" presidential speeches stopped in 2003, it's conceivable that things have gotten more dire in terms of how much a single address can change things.  Since 2003, the partisan political arteries have hardened even further ensuring that for the vast majority of the country what they take from the speech will be pre-determined based on the political viewpoint going in to the speech. We've cited this Gallup poll on the most polarizing presidential years on record -- comparing the delta between Democratic job approval and Republican job approval -- as evidence of how much worse it is now than it has ever been before. It's worth re-citing.

Image courtesy of Gallup
Image courtesy of Gallup

Of the 12 most polarizing years on record, 10 (!) of them have come since George W. Bush was elected president in 2000. That fact means that the "persuadables" watching the speech tonight are virtually non-existent.

There are still some uses for the State of the Union, argued Robert Schlesinger, the managing editor for opinion at U.S. News and the author of a book detailing the relationships between presidents and their speechwriters.  "This speech still commands more of the nation's fractured attention than any other political event will this year and it is an important guide and discipline for the sprawling executive bureaucracy," said  Schlesinger.

That's true-ish. People who pay attention are paying attention. ("It's one of those rare, valuable gathering places for attentive Americans," said Democratic consultant Jim Jordan.) But, as detailed by Dante Chinni in the Wall Street Journal, ratings for the State of the Union have been falling steadily. President's Obama's 2012 SOTU drew a 21.8 score, the lowest in more than two decades of data.  Added Chinni: "About 33.5 million people tuned in for the speech, the lowest number since 2000, when about 31.5 million watched President Bill Clinton’s SOTU swan song."

Perhaps the best defense for the necessity of the State of the Union comes from longtime Bush speechwriter  -- and now WaPo columnist -- Michael Gerson. "It does bring to a head the internal White House debate on agenda and strategy -- a useful thing," explained Gerson.

So, as an internal organizing tool -- and a signal to your allies and your enemies of where you are headed -- the State of the Union speech matters. But, it almost always matters so so so so much less than the coverage of it would lead you to believe.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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