Every State of the Union is supposed to be “more than just a speech” but in reality they are all just a speech.
Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire recently highlighted a Wall Street Journal piece that makes a classic claim about the annual State of the Union address that presidents give to joint sessions of Congress. It’s not just some boring speech; no it’s much more than that:
“But the State of the Union address is about more than just the speech. For a sitting president, it’s essentially a fresh start. And, more than any time in his presidency, Mr. Obama needs one of those.”
The claim that the State of the Union is a vitally important event in determining whether a presidency will succeed or fail is an old line in political journalism. Unfortunately there’s no real evidence to back this up. Political science research is pretty clear that presidential speeches don’t have any real impact on public opinion in the long term and might even hurt a president’s cause. In addition, political science research is also pretty clear that of all the ways to influence Congress, giving speeches is probably one of the least effective.
So does this mean the State of the Union is pointless? Not at all! The State of the Union is a great window into what the White House is collectively thinking about and planning to move on over the next year. But the speech itself won’t have a major impact in determining the outcomes. In other words, Obama could give a great speech about curbing income inequality but that won’t convince many Republicans to necessarily vote for Obama’s policy remedies. Likewise, Obama screwing up a passage about using executive orders to curb greenhouse gas emissions won’t necessarily make that idea any harder to implement.
In short, if you are going to watch the State of the Union, don’t pay attention to the color commentary. Pay attention to the issues Obama talks about, because that’s what the White House will be stressing throughout the year…though the speech itself won’t determine any outcomes.
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–Photo: Tim Sloan/AP