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Why The State Of The Union Doesn’t Have A Big Political Impact

With an impeachment trial ongoing and the Iowa caucuses taking place the day before, President Trump’s third State of the Union address has flown under the radar in a very busy news cycle. (In case you missed the memo, the speech takes place at 9 p.m. Eastern tonight.) But maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing: The State of the Union probably gets more attention than it deserves, given its low political stakes.

First, presidents usually take the State of the Union as an opportunity to make policy proposals and urge Congress to pass them — but most of the time, they are unsuccessful. Political scientists Donna Hoffman and Alison Howard track the number of policy requests that presidents make in their State of the Union addresses,1 and they found that the president’s annual speech to Congress featured an average of 33 policy proposals from 1965 to 2019.2

But only 25 percent of those proposals were fully enacted within the following year (another 14 percent, however, were partially enacted). The exact share has varied a lot from year to year: For example, the wildly productive 89th Congress passed two-thirds of the 36 agenda items in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 address — but a grand total of zero of the 19 proposals from President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 State of the Union fully became law. As for Trump, only 16 percent of his speeches’ policy rollouts so far have been fully enacted.

Second, State of the Union addresses usually have little impact on public opinion of the president. Gallup’s regular polling of the president’s approval rating, which goes back decades, enables us to compare polls taken immediately before and immediately after the State of the Union to check for any popularity bumps we might attribute to the speech. But according to Gallup, the average State of the Union address since 19783 has boosted the president’s approval rating by just 0.4 percentage points. In fact, a president’s approval rating is just as likely to go down as it is up after a State of the Union (the average movement in any direction is 2.7 points, which still isn’t very much).

How the State of the Union affects presidential approval
Approval rating before and after the speech
Year President Before After Change
1998 Clinton 59% 69% +10
1996 Clinton 46 52 +6
2005 W. Bush 51 57 +6
2019 Trump 37 43 +6
1994 Clinton 54 58 +4
2016 Obama 45 49 +4
1984 Reagan 52 55 +3
2015 Obama 45 48 +3
1980 Carter 56 58 +2
1995 Clinton 47 49 +2
2012 Obama 44 46 +2
2018 Trump 38 40 +2
1988 Reagan 49 50 +1
1992 H.W. Bush 46 47 +1
2003 W. Bush 60 61 +1
2014 Obama 41 42 +1
1982 Reagan 47 47 0
1999 Clinton 69 69 0
2008 W. Bush 34 34 0
2010 Obama 48 48 0
2011 Obama 50 50 0
1979 Carter 43 42 -1
1986 Reagan 64 63 -1
1991 H.W. Bush 83 82 -1
2000 Clinton 64 63 -1
2006 W. Bush 43 42 -1
1983 Reagan 37 35 -2
2002 W. Bush 84 82 -2
2013 Obama 52 50 -2
1978 Carter 55 52 -3
1997 Clinton 60 57 -3
1985 Reagan 64 60 -4
2004 W. Bush 53 49 -4
2007 W. Bush 36 32 -4
1987 Reagan 48 43 -5
1990 H.W. Bush 80 73 -7
Average change +0.4
Median change 0
Average absolute change 2.7
Median absolute change 2

Source: Gallup

Last year, though, Trump’s approval rating did actually improve by 6 points in the aftermath of his State of the Union — but don’t credit the speech for that. Instead, as you may recall, Trump gave his 2019 State of the Union under rather unusual circumstances — the government had just reopened from the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, which appeared to depress Trump’s approval ratings. Gallup’s pre-State of the Union poll was conducted mostly while the shutdown was still going on. But with the shutdown over, Trump’s popularity reverted to its usual mean of between 41 and 43 percent, and accordingly Gallup’s post-speech poll contained better news for the president.

One reason why a State of the Union address may not change many Americans’ minds about the president is that the audience is disproportionately already fans of the president. Since at least the era of President George H.W. Bush, the people who have tuned in to watch the State of the Union have tended to be members of the president’s party, according to polls of viewers conducted shortly after the speech by Gallup, ABC News/Washington Post or CNN. For instance, last year, CNN’s sample of those who watched Trump’s State of the Union was 42 percent Republican, 22 percent Democratic.

All this isn’t to say that the State of the Union doesn’t matter. It symbolizes how the executive and legislative branches are coequal and must work together to govern. It also allows us to draw a straight line from George Washington — who delivered the first annual presidential address to Congress in 1790 — to modern presidents, a reminder of the continuity of the republic. And since the State of the Union began to be televised in the 1960s, it has represented a chance for the president to speak directly to the people, his ultimate constituents. So tune in on Tuesday night for the chance to participate in an important democratic tradition; just don’t expect much to come of it.

Footnotes

  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.

  2. Excluding, however, the 1969, 1973 and 1977 addresses, for which we have no data.

  3. This time, not including addresses to a joint session of Congress.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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