Impact of State of Union speeches isn’t very lasting

From Eisenhower to Obama, presidents seem to have a penchant for some of the same lines in their State of the Union addresses. Whether it’s war or taxes or health care, there are themes that repeat again and again. Take a look back at almost 60 years of history in a little over two minutes. (Jason Aldag/Jason Aldag / The Washington Post)
February 11, 2013

When President Obama delivers his fourth State of the Union speech Tuesday night, he is guaranteed an audience of millions of viewers, the rapt of attention of Beltway reporters and issues advocates, and for at least an hour, the undivided attention of Congress.

What isn’t guaranteed is any lasting impact.

Rarely have State of the Union addresses moved public opinion, and rarely have they led to the kind of broad legislative accomplishments that presidents propose. For all the ritual and attention surrounding these speeches, the State of the Union is, well, sort of lame.

“Most of the speeches can be summarized in three words: boring, boring, boring,” said Allan Lichtman, author of “The 13 Keys to the Presidency.” “They tend to be laundry lists. But sometimes they rise above that.”

Mandated by the Constitution, the State of the Union, for much of its history, was not a speech at all but a written list of policy recommendations handed to Congress. Now, the addresses are grand political theater and provide a rare chance for a president to make an unfiltered argument and lay out policy ambitions from the biggest bully pulpit he will have all year.

Billed as a coda to his second inauguration, Obama’s speech will focus on the economy and the middle class — he is set to propose spending public money on education, research and infrastructure — as well as touch on immigration and gun control.

He will spend the remainder of the week giving repackaged versions of his address, looking to capi­tal­ize on the moment and further underscore his priorities.

“The State of the Union is a Super Bowl-like political event. The key to fully leveraging it is to make sure that it doesn’t become a one-off but contains a big-idea thematic animated by some specific proposals,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked for President Bill Clinton. “If the speech is not approached like that, it risks becoming a pupu platter moment — lots of tasty dishes, but you won’t be filled up for the long term.”

Although interest groups and lobbyists, inside and outside the administration, spend time trying to get the briefest of mentions of their pet causes in the speech before an audience of about 40 million, there are few legislative payoffs to show for all their efforts.

President George W. Bush used the first State of the Union speech of his second term to call for privatizing Social Security, an effort that hit a brick wall in Congress and nationwide.

In his 2012 speech, Obama proposed that every state require that students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18, a recommendation that also fell flat.

Obama used that address to make his argument for reelection, touching on themes of fairness and economic equality that would undergird his campaign stump speeches. But there have been few memorable lines or themes from Obama’s addresses on par with Clinton’s 1996 pronouncement that “the era of big government is over” or Bush’s “axis of evil” reference from 2002.

“His speeches have tended to be about half looking back and half looking forward. And that’s a style you can choose in a State of the Union — how much of the speech is going to be devoted to where we are today, how far we’ve come and so forth, versus something more visionary and using your time to look forward,” said Chriss Winston, a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. “That’s a choice every president has to make.”

On Wednesday, Obama will begin a road trip to North Carolina to further rally support and try to keep the momentum and the spotlight. Yet, polls suggest the hour-long speeches, given during prime time in the middle of a workweek, rarely change minds.

The exception was Clinton, who over seven addresses got a three-percentage-point boost in his approval rating. He received the biggest increase in 1998 when he delivered a speech days after the Monica S. Lewinsky story broke. He trumpeted a balanced federal budget and record low rates for unemployment and crime, but he did not mention the scandal. His approval rating jumped from 59 percent to 69 percent, according to Gallup.

One unpredictable factor on Tuesday night will be the issue of gun control and how much of his speech Obama will devote to it in the aftermath of the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Several lawmakers are planning to invite to the Capitol guests whose lives have been affected by gun violence, among them parents of children who were shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

That tableau of grieving parents will amplify the president’s message and, even more than his words, possibly help him frame an agenda around gun control.

“I think most State of the Union messages are forgotten quickly after they’re given . . . unless there’s some kind of crisis,” said James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “If there’s a crisis or an event like 9/11, then of course America is very focused on listening, and sometimes they can have an impact.”

For Obama, who delivered what many consider the best speech of his career last month when he was inaugurated, the somewhat low bar for Tuesday’s address could be a positive.

“I don’t think the expectations are high,” said Aaron Kall, director of the University of Michigan’s Debate Institute. “I think it’s generally something pretty monotonous and non-memorable. And if he can use that to his advantage and come up with a few memorable lines or the start of a very successful string of policy victories, then that’s something that could certainly be advantageous.”

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