President Obama can reasonably expect a lot of things after he delivers his State of the Union address tonight, but a substantial polling bounce isn’t one of them.
A look at recent history shows that presidents – Obama included – simply don’t move the public’s opinion about them all that much with their annual speeches before a joint session of Congress.
To better illustrate this point, let’s first look just at Obama. More specifically, let's look at his approval rating just before and just after delivering his three previous State of the Union addresses:
2012: Polls showed a consistent uptick for the president. But it was a small one:
2011: This year, results were mixed, suggesting there was likely very little movement in either direction:
2010: Obama's numbers ticked down slightly in a handful of polls and held steady in others:
Data from Gallup also show very little movement in Obama's approval rating immediately after his three previous State of the Union speeches.
What's more, in 2010, Gallup looked back at the five most recent presidents before Obama and found that they experienced mostly marginal changes in their approval rating. Bill Clinton did better than most, averaging a three-point bump over his eight years in office. George H.W. Bush fared worst, averaging a 4-point drop. But even those are not very dramatic swings. And for everyone else, the movement was barely noticeable:
This all seems to suggest a couple of things. One, while State of the Union speeches are all the rage among political insiders, they simply don’t affect the opinions of those outside that bubble in the same way.
Second, no matter how bad or how good the consensus opinion about Obama’s speech is tonight and tomorrow morning, it’s not likely going to change the public’s outlook on his job performance all that much. Another reason for this: Many people already hold very firm views about the president. Fully six in 10 hold “strongly” positive (30 percent) or strongly negative views (30 percent) of Obama's policy agenda, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.
In other words, the difference between a stirring address and a speech that falls flat is – in the eyes of most Americans, at least – probably not as big as might be expected.
Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.