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In Defense Of The Mostly Pointless State Of The Union

The State of the Union is a little like New Year’s Eve. It’s an annual tradition that’s been practiced for more than a century. It can be a great moment to pause and consider the year to come. And if you expect it to be life-changing, you’re gonna have a bad time. 

As we’ve documented here (and here and here), the State of the Union address has increasingly become ineffective when it comes to achieving its ostensible goals. It doesn’t have much impact on what policies Congress pursues. It isn’t a good opportunity for the president to address all Americans. It doesn’t even impact the president’s approval rating. But there are some caveats to all of these shortcomings, and while it might not fully do what we expect it to, the State of the Union also isn’t causing any harm. Like New Year’s Eve, you might enjoy it a lot more if you adjust your expectations.

Yes, It Rarely Impacts Legislation …

The ostensible purpose of the State of the Union is to communicate the president’s agenda to Congress. Here’s what he thinks is important. Here’s what he would like Congress to prioritize. And while the president will certainly say a lot of those things tonight, whether Congress listens is another story. Political scientists Donna Hoffman and Alison Howard have analyzed legislation passed after every State of the Union address since 19651 to see which policy requests were partially or fully met by Congress in the year that followed. They’ve found it’s uneven at best, and on average only 24.3 percent of requests were fully enacted by Congress, with another 13.8 percent partially enacted. In some years, none of the requests were met at all. 

140 million Americans will live in states controlled by Democrats | FiveThirtyEight

… But It Still Sets Policy Goals

While highlighting a policy goal in a State of the Union address doesn’t guarantee a president a new bill sitting on his desk a few months later, 24 percent is not nothing. Some of those goals do translate into action by Congress, particularly in years when the president’s party controls both chambers. For example, nearly half of the policy requests made by former President Barack Obama in his 2010 address were fully enacted by a Democratic-controlled Congress that year. In most years, at least some of the legislative actions requested by the president have later been enacted. And even in those rare years when they weren’t, the address still may have affected policy in terms of voter awareness — as long as it made the paper the next day. Research has shown that media coverage of the agenda laid out in the State of the Union increases public knowledge of policy initiatives. So even if Congress isn’t listening, voters might be. 

Yes, Fewer And Fewer Americans Actually Watch It …

There was a time when the State of the Union was, if not must-see TV, at least should-probably-tune-in TV. In 1993, an estimated 66.9 million viewers watched then-President Bill Clinton’s joint address to Congress, according to Nielsen. That’s about three-quarters of the more than 91 million people estimated to have tuned in to Super Bowl XXVII just a couple weeks prior. But since then, ratings for State of the Union addresses have mostly trended downward:

And the audience that does tune in is typically highly partisan: Democrats watch when a Democratic president speaks, Republicans watch when a Republican president speaks, but there’s little crossover. This means that during the address, the president is speaking live to an ever-shrinking sliver of the American population.

… But That Doesn’t Mean They Don’t Hear About It

Among the audience that does tune in are, well, journalists, and follow-up coverage of the State of the Union address can reach a wider audience. Fewer Americans get their news from live TV coverage than they used to, as they now use a variety of sources to stay informed. Thirty-nine percent of American adults still get at least some of their news from network broadcasts and cable channels, while a third get news through social media and 12 percent check national newspapers or their websites, according to a YouGov/The Economist poll conducted last year. Twelve percent also said they get at least some of their news from “Other national news websites, like Yahoo News, Axios, Vox.” As many as 13 percent of Americans get some of their news through podcasts or talk radio and 20 percent through YouTube. Preferences tend to differ by age, too. Older Americans are more likely to watch TV news, while younger Americans are more likely to catch up online or through social media.

All this to say that the message of the State of the Union can still trickle down to the American public of all ages and political stripes, even if they’re not tuning in live. 

Yes, It’s Mostly A Formality … But Maybe That’s Okay

Sure, none of these facts mean the State of the Union is a particularly effective American political tradition. The real reason it continues has less to do with any delusions of its influence and more to do with inertia. Every president since Woodrow Wilson has delivered this address to the nation around this time of year, making it one of the country’s most enduring political rituals. That’s not the most compelling reason to keep doing something, but there’s something to be said about continuity and tradition. And there are certainly more contentious political traditions that endure just because that’s the way we’ve always done it (*cough* caucuses *cough*). If the main reason the State of the Union exists is to keep some semblance of consistency in our increasingly chaotic political system, is that really such a bad thing?

Americans are lonely. That has political consequences. | FiveThirtyEight Politics


  1. Plus the addresses before a joint session of Congress that new presidents give shortly after being sworn in — technically, these aren’t State of the Union addresses. Data for 1969, 1973, and 1977 were not included because addresses on those years did not meet the parameters for inclusion: Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter did not give joint addresses during their first years in office, and in 1973 Nixon sent a written State of the Union instead of giving a speech. .

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.


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