The pomp and circumstance returned just in time to President BidenJoe BidenBiden State of the Union: A plea for unity in unusual times Watch: Key moments from Biden’s first State of the Union address Five takeaways from Biden’s State of the Union address MORE to deliver an outstanding State of the Union (SOTU) address yesterday. He defined the stakes in Ukraine, while clarifying his central role in unifying the world against the Russian president Vladimir PoutineVladimir Vladimirovich Putin Biden’s State of the Union: A call for unity in unusual times Watch: Key moments from Biden’s first State of the Union address Reynolds’ response hammers Biden for his ‘weakness on stage’ World » MOREaggressiveness.
The President recognized the economic challenges we face and mapped out ways to address them, while clearly articulating the progress made under his leadership.
He made it clear that we were finally winning the battle against the pandemic, while offering historic remedies for bigotry and exclusion.
While this was a great speech, don’t overestimate its likely impact. State of the Union addresses rarely have a significant or lasting effect on the approval ratings of presidents.
While these speeches generate wide coverage, the central tendency is that these annual national rituals leave only a barely perceptible trace in the public consciousness.
Since 1978, the average State of the Union has had less than a point of impact on public approval of the president’s performance. Indeed, approval ratings are almost as likely to fall as to rise in the wake of these addresses.
Only six SOTUs produced an upward move of 4 points or more. A master communicator, former President Clinton holds the title of three of these six addresses.
While former President Reagan was dubbed the “great communicator,” none of his SOTU addresses generated even 4 points of upward movement in his approval rating. In fact, three of his speeches resulted in noticeable drops in his approval rating.
Still, by the time you read this, you’ll probably be swimming in instant polls that are supposed to portend big shifts in public attitudes.
Pro tip: This almost always happens and is usually not a bad omen.
Typically, these polls ask about support for the presidents’ policies, and a large number of people support the proposals put forward by the presidents in these speeches.
But these seemingly intense reactions do not translate into a significant change in the indicator that has real political consequences: presidential approval.
Approval ratings are important precisely because, unlike many other polling questions, they have a demonstrated relationship to legislative and election results. The higher the approval rating, the more legislative results presidents achieve and the better their parties perform in legislative and presidential elections.
Other poll questions grab headlines but don’t necessarily mean much.
For example, one of the strongest positive reactions to SOTU policies was George W. Bush’s speech in 2002. What happened to Bush’s approval ratings after the speech? He lost 2 points.
The weakest positive reaction was also to a speech by Bush in 2006. Result: his approval rating fell by 1 point.
Why do experts assume that these speeches change public attitudes, despite the evidence?
First, because the audience for State of the Union speeches is huge. True; yet they represent only a minority of the country. In 2020, 36 million American adults watched the speech, a huge number. But that’s less than 15% of the country’s adult population.
Due to the war in Ukraine, this year’s audience may well be much larger, but a majority of Americans are unlikely to hear the president’s speech.
Big changes in this relatively small part of the country can be mitigated in the population as a whole. A 15 point jump among 15% of the country is just over 2% of the nation as a whole.
Plus, the instant poll questions that these polls are based on are just that: instant. Only the really hard-core aren’t immediately emotional after hearing an hour-long presidential speech.
The proposals put forward in these speeches seem solid and are presented in the most laudatory terms possible.
But as comments point out flaws and failures, distortions and disagreements, people settle back into their pre-existing habits and attitudes.
Approval numbers can be moved, but it takes more than a big speech. Raising the President’s Approval Rating requires real-world successes over the next eight months.
Mellman is chairman of the Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 US senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman was a pollster for Democratic Senate leaders for more than 20 years, president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and Democratic Majority Chairman for Israel.