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State of the Union: Watch the Strategy, Not the Polls

The State of the Union this year once again coincides with what I call “Hype Week,” the period between the N.F.L. conference championships and the Super Bowl (now 13 days long) in which absolutely nothing of interest seems to take place.

The two share more in common than you might think. Could there be anything as dull as a discussion about, for instance, which Congressmen are going to sit next to one another to watch the speech? Well, there is the Pro Bowl.

More to the point: Despite the media buzz that surrounds them, neither is likely to have any discernible impact on public opinion.

The evidence for this, as my fellow polling geeks are fond of pointing out, is quite clear. Here is a chart detailing the net change in the president’s Gallup approval rating following his State of the Union addresses, for all speeches back to 1962. (I exclude years like 2001 and 2009, when a new president has just taken office and the speech was sometimes delivered by the incoming president, sometimes by the outgoing one and sometimes no official address was given at all.)

Two things should quickly become apparent. First, the most common public response to the State of Union is none at all. Presidential approval has rarely moved by more than 4 points in either direction: it happened following just 9 of the 42 addresses included in the analysis, and the average change is just under 3 points. Some of what change we do see, moreover, is probably just random noise (if you took two identical surveys of 1,000 people each — like polls just before and after a State of the Union speech — sampling error alone would produce a deviation of nearly 2 points on average).

Second, to the extent that they have any effect at all, State of the Union addresses have been just as likely to hurt a president’s approval rating as to help it. The president’s standing in the Gallup poll advanced following 19 of the 42 addresses, declined following 20 of them, and remained exactly the same following 3.

In some ways, this is surprising. The State of the Union typically gets a fairly sizable audience: about 30 million people watched last year’s speech on television, for instance. The president is seen in a grand setting and gets to control his message. (While the opposition party has been granted an opportunity to respond since 1966, most of these efforts have been wanting.)

By contrast, presidential candidates typically get a large (although almost always temporary) “bounce” in polling following their party’s nominating conventions. While the two events are not exactly comparable, one might have expected at least some modest increase following State of the Union addresses. But usually, there is none.

In other ways, however, the comparison to a political campaign is misleading. Most people — unfortunately for FiveThirtyEight’s traffic numbers — pay very little attention to politics between election campaigns. It takes a lot to get their attention, let alone to change what are usually deeply held perceptions about the president. Wars, recessions, terror attacks, government shutdowns, impeachment proceedings, major scandals, and legislative battles as monumental as the one over last year’s health care bill: these things will usually do the trick. But it is a short list.

Nor do most presidents try to make news during their State of the Union addresses. Instead, the speeches tend to be predictable and perfunctory, although there have been a couple of exceptions, like George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union, in which he attempted to rally support for the Iraq War.

Mr. Obama’s speech tonight is unlikely to break the mold. If anything, he may be especially disinclined to take risks. He seems to have been on a winning streak of late — a productive lame-duck session of Congress and a very well-received speech after the Tucson shootings two weeks ago — and he may see little reason to break from the bipartisan tone that he adopted in his address at the University of Arizona.

With that said, there are a few things I’ll be looking for in tonight’s address. They specifically aren’t things that are likely to have any impact on perceptions of Mr. Obama in the near term. Rather, they might hint at the White House’s thinking on some of the more difficult strategic choices it faces over the next 6 to 9 months:

How Mr. Obama will try to maneuver against the G.O.P. on the issue on which he might be most vulnerable: the federal budget deficit. Popular approval of Mr. Obama’s handling of the deficit is just 38 percent, according to a CNN poll released yesterday. Major changes to Social Security appear to be off the table — although, considering how unpopular they would be, it is hard to know whether the White House was seriously considering any in the first place. But the White House will need to have some sort of response to Republicans ready on the deficit, particularly since a budget hawk, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, is set to deliver the Republican rebuttal.

How much Mr. Obama will engage with the Republicans on health care. This is another area of vulnerability for Mr. Obama. But unlike the deficit, where he will be forced to debate the Republicans because of the House’s power over the federal purse strings, health care is an issue that he may be able to avoid taking up until the 2012 campaign, when the prospect of a Republican successor in the White House will make the potential for repeal of his overhaul more acute. Congressional Democrats are behaving in a way that suggests they aren’t terribly worried about the impact that health care might have in the 2012 election, and there may be some risks for the G.O.P. in terms of spitting into the wind on the issue: public opinion on repeal is somewhat ambiguous. Even so, tonight could be an opportunity for Mr. Obama to audition some of the arguments he may plan to make about health care over the next two years.

How Mr. Obama will “sell” the recovery. Leading economic indicators are pointing up — enough that some Republicans (in a strategy I would consider ill-advised) have started trying to take credit for them, rather than asserting that the economy is failing. At the same time, following the premature invocation of the phrase “Recovery Summer” — arguably Mr. Obama’s version of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner — the White House will need to weigh carefully how much to sell its successes, and thereby raise voter expectations, while the unemployment rate remains at 9.4 percent.

Whether Mr. Obama will address energy and the environment in more than a perfunctory way. With the House Republicans effectively holding a veto over domestic policy, most major Democratic policy initiatives will probably be stalled for at least the next two years. Their cap-and-trade plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions — a tough sell even in a favorable political environment — is surely no exception. At the same time, environmental policy is arguably the biggest piece of unfinished business from the agenda that Mr. Obama advanced in 2008, and it might be one of the biggest reasons for liberal voters to try to re-elect him in 2012. Meanwhile, rising gasoline prices could undermine consumer sentiment about the recovery, and increase the salience of the debate over energy policy. Does Mr. Obama think he can go on offense on energy? Is there any set of compromise measures that he might be comfortable with and that also might have a chance of passing both houses of Congress?

None of these things depend intrinsically on the State of the Union itself. If Obama decided to play Scattergories with the Congress for two hours tonight instead of delivering a speech, the White House would still face exactly the same decisions. But the arguments he advances tonight to prime the electorate for what they may see and hear over the next year will be worth watching.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.