On Tuesday night, President Trump will be presented with one of his favorite things: an audience.
That audience will not be terribly big, it is safe to say. State of the Union speeches generally track somewhere between Oscars and Grammy broadcasts in recent years, so we are talking tens of millions of people, but not Super Bowl-level audiences.
Regardless. An opportunity to speak for an hour or so to, say, 35 million people? That is something that will appeal to Trump. It is an opportunity for him to do the long-form version of what he claims is his goal with his tweets: speak to America without the media intervening.
If he is hoping that America will respond by embracing him, the recent track record suggests that is not likely.
President Barack Obama gave seven State of the Union addresses, in 2010 through 2016. (Like Trump, he gave a joint address to Congress in his first year, but that, as pedants like to tell everyone, is not a State of the Union.) Coming into those speeches, Obama had the highest approval ratings in 2013 and the lowest in 2014 (according to Gallup). 2016 was about in the middle.
So what happened afterward? In most years, nothing much. His approval stayed generally flat.
That was not really the case in 2013, when his approval dwindled afterward. That trend, though, preceded the speech to some extent, a function of the popularity he saw after the 2012 election starting to fade.
Part of the reason the approval ratings did not change much is that opinions of Obama among Democrats and Republicans were already pretty near the poles. Democrats loved Obama. Republicans hated him. Over the course of his presidency (not just in the periods around SOTU speeches), it was largely movement among independents that drove changes in his approval rating. (As in 2013, when independents’ approval sagged around the time of the speech.)
This is the core problem for Trump. That polarized climate has gotten worse, not better.
The average gap between the parties’ approval ratings of George H.W. Bush in 1989 was 32.9 points. In Bill Clinton’s first year, it was 51.8 points. In Obama’s, it was 64.7 points. In 2017, it was 75.2 points.
That is a problem for Trump in part because opinions are already so polarized — and he is already so unpopular. You probably noticed on the line charts above that his red line was well below Obama’s blue ones. In the week before Obama’s least-popular SOTU, he was at 42 percent approval. Trump is at 38 percent. That is higher than George W. Bush’s 36 percent in 2007 — but Bush was facing a tanking economy and two unpopular wars.
On Tuesday, Gallup released poll numbers showing Trump’s popularity in all 50 states. He earned 50 percent or more of the vote in 24 states in 2016. That is not the same as approval rating; it compares Trump with Hillary Clinton, not Trump to Trump. According to Gallup, only in 12 states do a majority of residents now approve of the job he is doing.
The standard move at this point in an article is to say something like:
To be sure, Trump could still turn this around. All he has to do is whatever.
I am going to buck tradition and suggest there is not much of anything Trump can say that will significantly change people’s minds at this point. In part, this is Trump’s fault: Those skeptical of his presidency are certainly skeptical in part because they recognize there is often a wide gulf between the pledges he makes and the policies he tries to enact. The pledges are often universal and sweeping in their appeal. The policies are often highly partisan.
The State of the Union speech is nothing but pledges.