Analyzing the Address

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 25, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
January 26, 2011

State of the Union unlikely to boost Obama’s popularity, say GW faculty experts.

With approximately 48 million watching, President Obama called for more unity and optimism in his second State of the Union address on Jan. 25.

But while the president touched on a number of key issues, including developing clean energy, supporting education and shrinking the budget deficit, the speech had few memorable lines and will probably not impact Obama’s ratings or relationship with Congress, say GW faculty experts.

For Henry Nau, professor of political science and international affairs, Obama’s speech did not alleviate his own concerns over the president’s policies. Dr. Nau cites Obama’s stimulus, health care and financial bills as unpopular measures that have not worked.

“Now Obama proposes new government spending for green energy and high-speed railways, while promising spending cuts which he hasn't delivered,” says Dr. Nau. “Until Obama’s policies change to unleash private industry spending and significantly cut government programs, his speeches mean very little.”

Edward D. Berkowitz, professor of history and of public policy and public administration, says he would have liked to see more specifics about Obama’s proposed domestic programs.

What about the speech’s staying power?

Leo Ribuffo, Society of the Cincinnati George Washington Distinguished Professor of History, says State of the Union addresses historically have little impact on a president’s public standing or relationship with Congress.

“This one was more or less what I expected: Obama’s standard emphasis on national unity despite differences—as in his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote—now adapted a bit to take into account the midterm Republican victories,” he says.

According to Dr. Ribuffo, if the White House was seeking to coin a memorable phrase, it failed. “‘Win the future’ falls flat,” he says. “Even political junkies won't remember it in five years, as they do phrases from some other State of the Unions: Lyndon B. Johnson’s ‘war on poverty,’ Bill Clinton’s ‘era of big government is over,’and Gerald Ford’s ‘the taste of the Union is not good’—my favorite for its candor.”

Assistant Professor of Political Science John Sides recently wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal on the lack of “bump” from State of the Union speeches. He tells GW Today there is little evidence that these addresses affect presidential approval ratings.

“Thirty years’ worth of Gallup polling data shows that the ‘bump’ from the address is never large and often non-existent,” says Dr. Sides. “The State of the Union address can increase the public’s knowledge of the president’s proposals and focus the public’s attention on particular problems, but even these effects are not necessarily large or durable.”

“What matters more than the speech itself is the reaction to it as framed by television and other media reports,” says Dr. Berkowitz. “One got the sense last night that the pundits did not quite know what to make of it. Certainly, this speech will not lead to a great surge in the president’s popularity rating but it remains to see just what the buzz will be. In that sense, the speech is still very much in play.”

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