State Of The Union Addresses Don't Actually Accomplish Very Much

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)

Big presidential speeches do not help shape and shift opinion. The power of the bully pulpit is overrated. Presidents typically evince support for policies that are already broadly popular. These are ideas that political scientists have long struggled to explain to the pundit class, who typically believe that the big problems can be solved if our leaders manage to uncork a soliloquy of such sentimental power that it softens the hard hearts of tribal opponents and brings everyone together in a happy, summer-camp sing-a-long.

Explaining this has hitherto been mostly a lost cause, but perhaps things are turning around, because here's a piece in today's Washington Post explaining that everyone should have low expectations about how tonight's State of the Union address will serve to alter the coming legislative debates:

When President Obama delivers his fourth State of the Union speech Tuesday night, he is guaranteed an audience of millions of viewers, the rapt of attention of Beltway reporters and issues advocates, and for at least an hour, the undivided attention of Congress.

What isn’t guaranteed is any lasting impact.

Rarely have State of the Union addresses moved public opinion, and rarely have they led to the kind of broad legislative accomplishments that presidents propose. For all the ritual and attention surrounding these speeches, the State of the Union is, well, sort of lame.

Yes, as itinerant political consultant Chris Lehane points out in the piece, the State Of The Union is a "Super Bowl-like political event," but it would actually be an eventful moment if the power failed in the chamber, leaving Chris Matthews to do his best Steve Tasker imitation. Cast your mind back to the State Of The Union addresses of the past, and you're more likely to remember them as the settings for weird distractions -- like South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie" outburst -- or the odd priorities advanced in the speech, like cracking down on steroids in baseball or thwarting the advance of "human-animal hybrids." (Like I said, presidents prefer to identify themselves with widely supported policies, even those that are scraped from the bottom of the barrel marker "Totally Obvious.")

CORRECTION: My bad, Joe Wilson's outburst came during Obama's 2009 address to a joint session of Congress, not a State Of The Union address. So, these things are even less memorable than I asserted in the first place!

But pundits and political writers continue to treat the pageantry of the State Of The Union as a setting in which big things can be accomplished, and the typical way that cable news talkers are pregaming their coverage is by asking aloud, "Will President Obama be able to persuade Congress to do big things in his State of the Union address tonight?" -- to use one phrase I heard on MSNBC today. David Brooks -- a noted member of the set of columnists who truly believe that the expression of rhetorical sentiment carries some sort of weight -- has a column in which he literally contends that with the right words tonight, Obama can bypass the entire legislative process, and just end up doing a bunch of random stuff by sheer force of will. Not gonna happen!

Attempts have been made to explain the limitations of the bully pulpit. One of the better exegeses was penned by Ezra Klein last year in the New Yorker. In it, he discusses the efforts of George Edwards, a political scholar at Texas A&M University, who undertook an empirical study of presidential rhetoric and came away unimpressed after examining the available data. "As a result," Klein writes, "his conference presentation, 'Presidential Rhetoric: What Difference Does It Make?,' was less a contribution to the research than a frontal assault on it." Edwards offered a fuller, further examination in a 2003 book, “On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit." I especially like the way he punctures the legend of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats," which loom in memory as presidential oratory raised to the level of art.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats are perhaps the most frequently cited example of Presidential persuasion. Cue Edwards: “He gave only two or three fireside chats a year, and rarely did he focus them on legislation under consideration in Congress. It appears that FDR only used a fireside chat to discuss such matters on four occasions, the clearest example being the broadcast on March 9, 1937, on the ill-fated ‘Court-packing’ bill.” Edwards also quotes the political scientists Matthew Baum and Samuel Kernell, who, in a more systematic examination of Roosevelt’s radio addresses, found that they fostered “less than a 1 percentage point increase” in his approval rating. His more traditional speeches didn’t do any better. He was unable to persuade Americans to enter the Second World War, for example, until Pearl Harbor.

As always, it is useful to cite the work of The Monkey Cage's John Sides, and his unparalleled ability to distill these sorts of complicated matters into something understandable and digestible. "Presidential speeches don’t really move the president’s job approval ratings," he writes, adding, "Presidential speeches don’t tend to persuade people on policy either," and "presidents don’t often succeed in persuading reluctant members of Congress to go along with their views."

So what works? Citing Edwards, Sides notes that "What presidents can do...is 'facilitate' change in favorable environments." Now, what that means is complicated, and the best way I can do it justice is to urge you to click over and read everything that Sides lays out in detail. But the bottom line expectation you should have approaching this State Of The Union address is that Obama will come out in support of a bunch of policies that are already popular with the electorate, enabling him to foster a common cause, and then use the rest of the address to indicate to Congress what he's open to discussing. What may sound like bottom-line demands are actually meant "to signal the President’s intention to push for these policies and, equally if not more important, to bargain about these policies."

"Expect the speech simply to spawn additional debate and negotiation," writes Sides. You can watch in real-time after the speech as exasperated pundits tsk-tsk the way the president invited further wrangling, rather than magically convincing everyone in the chamber to do a "Hands Across America" routine around his stated policy agenda. But the point is that while these orations accomplish next to nothing, they do touch off a period in which things can be accomplished in the future. If you go into tonight's speech looking for his intention to begin the process of persuading, you'll come away with smart insights. If you go into tonight's speech looking to evaluate how persuasive the speech is, in and of itself, it's likely to be a useless experience.

Whether or not tonight's State Of The Union address ends up being useful or irrelevant, I suppose that I have the ironic obligation to point out that we will be covering the whole thing tonight like a gaggle of hyper-obsessed meerkats on designer club drugs, so please tune in and click around so we can all get paid, et cetera.

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