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Not Much From A State Of The Union Usually Becomes Law

President Trump on Tuesday gave the first State of the Union address of his presidency, calling for new legislation in policy areas including immigration, infrastructure, prescription drugs and military spending. But how many of those proposals can we expect to see enacted?

The State of the Union has historically been a chance for the president to lay out his policy agenda for the year, but according to two political scientists, not much of it usually becomes law.

Judging when a proposal is enacted fully or even partially is inherently subjective, but Donna Hoffman and Alison Howard came up with a system that offers a good starting point. They analyzed how successful past presidents have been at turning State of the Union policy announcements into law. We wrote about their research in May 2015, and Hoffman and Howard were kind enough to send us updated data.

From Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama, according to Hoffman and Howard, presidents made an average of 34 proposals in each State of the Union or initial address to a joint session of Congress. The most requests a president made during this period were Bill Clinton’s 87 in 2000. The fewest were just nine by Jimmy Carter in 1980.1

About 25 percent of policy announcements were ultimately successful, according to Hoffman and Howard’s definition of success, which is a complete enactment of the president’s recommended policy within a year of the address.2 They grade 14 percent more as partial successes — times when the president got a portion of the policy he asked for. The average policy agenda success rate increased to 32.7 percent when a president’s party controlled both houses of Congress, which Trump’s does.3

Altogether, an average of 60.6 percent of policy proposals mentioned in the State of the Union never materialized, suggesting that any one request from Trump is more likely not to be turned into legislation. The least successful — or, if you prefer, most ambitious — president since Johnson was Gerald Ford, with a 71.4 percent failure rate over his time in office. Johnson was the most successful — or, if you prefer, most realistic — with a 47.1 percent failure rate.

Footnotes

  1. Hoffman and Howard exclude any State of the Union address by a lame duck president in his final month of office but do consider any address by a newly inaugurated president to a joint session of Congress, if one took place.

  2. They measure policy recommendations using content analysis and then code the policies according to their success in the legislative record.

  3. We exclude George W. Bush’s first year in office from this analysis as he lost full control of Congress in May 2001 when Sen. Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party to become an independent.

Andrea Jones-Rooy is FiveThirtyEight’s quantitative researcher.

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