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Why Biden’s First State Of The Union Might Not Change Much

This year’s State of the Union will be — believe it or not — the first since the beginning of the pandemic in the United States. And unlike last year’s speech (which was technically a speech to a joint session of Congress, not a State of the Union), attendance will not be capped this year and all members of Congress are invited, though guests still aren’t allowed. With both Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and President Biden’s historic Supreme Court pick in Ketanji Brown Jackson, this year’s event is sure to cover a lot of important ground. But as we’ve long documented at FiveThirtyEight, the State of the Union (capitalized title and all) is more symbolic than anything else.

That said, Biden’s speech will still be an opportunity for him to introduce his legislative priorities to the public and to Congress. While the war in Ukraine is poised to overshadow things, Biden will also surely talk about domestic policy matters, such as COVID-19, inflation and the economy. But simply being a topic included in the State of the Union is no guarantee that Congress will act. From 1965 to 2020, political scientists Donna Hoffman and Alison Howard, who track presidents’ policy requests in State of the Union addresses, found that only 25 percent of requests presidents made of Congress were completely successful. Another 14 percent were partially successful, but a whopping 62 percent were entirely unsuccessful.

To be sure, as you can see in the chart below, some presidents have been more successful than others in getting their speech’s agenda through Congress. The number of requests has varied by president, too. Former President Bill Clinton made by far the most requests on average (57 per speech), including the most requests in one address (87 in 2000), whereas former President Jimmy Carter averaged around 16 requests per speech.

Congress also isn’t acting on as many presidential requests as it once did. The share of requests fully enacted by Congress peaked in the first year we have data for — in 1965, under former President Lyndon Johnson. And it’s mostly been downhill ever since, especially in recent years as Congress has struggled to pass all kinds of legislation, thanks to growing political polarization and gridlock. The share of unsuccessful requests has steadily grown, and former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump each had one year where Congress didn’t pass a single piece of their State of the Union agenda. It’s possible, too, that Biden won’t risk overpromising ahead of what’s expected to be a tough midterm election for Democrats.

Regardless of how many requests he makes of Congress, Biden will probably be addressing a heavily Democratic audience. The audience for a president’s State of the Union is usually skewed toward the president’s party, as you can see in the chart below. Consider, too, that in Trump’s last State of the Union, 61 percent of Republicans said that they planned to watch, whereas majorities of independents and Democrats said they didn’t plan to. 

It’s also possible that few people will tune in tonight. About 27 million people watched Biden’s joint address last year, which was the lowest rating for a State of the Union or joint address since Nielsen, a research firm, started tracking viewership numbers in 1993. (This viewership is especially meager when compared with Biden’s predecessor, who often dominated media coverage.)

So let’s say the audience tonight is small and already friendly toward the president. That’s not ideal for making up ground with the public at large. Indeed, that’s what Gallup’s polling of presidents’ approval ratings shows as well. Because Gallup’s polling goes back decades, we can look at presidential approval ratings before and after a president’s speech, and what we’ve found is little to no improvement in a president’s approval rating. 

State of the Union addresses coincided with an average improvement of just 0.4 percentage points, and a median change of 0 points. In fact, a president’s approval rating is just as likely to go down as it is up after an address (the average movement in any direction is 2.6 points).

How the State of the Union affects presidential approval

Source: Gallup

To be sure, there have been some big swings in presidents’ approval ratings following the State of the Union. Consider Clinton’s 1998 speech. At the time, he was mired in scandal because he had lied to the country about the sexual nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a then-24-year-old White House intern. But after a measured State of the Union speech that never mentioned the scandal, but instead touted bipartisan accomplishments like a national budget surplus, he gained 10 points in his approval rating. Likewise, in 2019, Trump’s approval rating had fallen to 37 percent largely because he had just overseen the longest government shutdown in history. But similar to Clinton, Trump tried to tout a bipartisan message, emphasizing cooperation and unity on issues like infrastructure and cancer research, and afterward, his approval ratings recovered to his usual low 40s.

Biden’s circumstances are different, but like Clinton and Trump, his approval rating is quite low, so the State of the Union could be a much-needed popularity boost for Biden. At the very least, it will be an opportunity for Biden to once again outline how he plans to handle Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an issue that Americans so far haven’t graded him too highly on. And given the audience will likely lean heavily Democratic, it may even be a chance for Biden to rebuild his standing with Democrats whose views of him have been faltering since last summer.

As is true for every president, the State of the Union is one of Biden’s best opportunities to tout his administration’s achievements, detail a plan for his administration in the upcoming months and communicate as directly to the public as he can. But ultimately, it’s the 500-some legislators in Congress who will be responsible for passing or not passing most of his agenda — and their minds probably won’t be swayed by a speech.

Jean Yi is a former politics intern at FiveThirtyEight.