President Obama giving State of Union address in 2012. (
President Obama giving State of Union address in 2012. (

As President Obama readies his State of the Union address, he confronts the lowest job-approval rating of his presidency.  According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, an even smaller number of Americans are confident in the president’s ability to make the right decisions for the country. His address on Tuesday isn’t likely to make these numbers rebound.

This is not because Americans ignore the speech entirely. Political scientist Jeffrey Cohen examined all SOTU addresses from 1953 to 1989 and found that the more a president emphasized certain issues — especially economic policy, foreign policy and civil rights — the more Americans thought those were important issues.  In the case of economic policy, this shift in Americans’ priorities lasted about a year; for the other issues, the shift was shorter-lived.  An open question for this year’s address is whether Obama’s anticipated attention to inequality will make the problem seem more urgent.

Americans can even learn things from the SOTU address. Political scientist Jason Barabas has found that the public can correctly answer factual questions about the policies discussed in the speech, but only to the extent that the news media devote attention to those policies.  So Obama’s success on this dimension is largely out of his control.  If the media focus more on the theatrics of the occasion — “You lie!” “Not true” — and less on the substance of his speech, then Americans may not learn much.

But 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.  For more on this, see here or especially here.  The magical belief in the power of presidential rhetoric is a species of what political scientist Brendan Nyhan calls the “Green Lantern Theory of the President” — “in honor of the comic book superheroes whose abilities to use their ‘power rings’ depend on their willpower.”

I think the best way to think about the SOTU address isn’t really in terms of public opinion at all, but as a signal to members of Congress.  Jon Bernstein has expressed this notion quite well:

One of the reasons for presidents to give high-profile speeches, indeed, is to signal to Congress … that this is something that’s a high priority for him. This is something he intends to fight for, and that he’s willing to bargain for. … It’s not about barnstorming the nation to convince people to put pressure on their Members of Congress; it’s about trying to find some way of getting to a trade that both sides can be happy about (while also finding pressure points that can be used to help push rank-and-file Members to go along). Again, thought of in that way, the function of the speech is mostly to clearly let everyone know that the president intends to be very aggressive in doing all of that.

The problem, of course, is that our polarized and divided government will frustrate much of what Obama is fighting for.