Viewers Tuning Out Obama

SOTU speeches have drawn declining viewership each year.

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The television audience for President Obama's State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night could be very disappointing to the White House.

It turns out that viewership of his State of the Union addresses has declined markedly over the past five years, and this trend of inattention will probably continue.

In February 2009, his first address to a joint session of Congress drew 52.4 million viewers, according to the Nielsen TV ratings company. In 2010, 48 million watched. In 2011, the number declined again to 43 million. In 2012, it dropped to 38 million, and in 2013, 33.5 million. The 33.5 million figure from last year was the lowest number of viewers for a State of the Union address in at least the past three administrations, according to Nielsen.

[READ: Obama Faces State of the Union Hurdle]

The ratings service reports that other presidents have drawn many more viewers. About 67 million Americans watched new President Bill Clinton give his first address to a joint session shortly after his inauguration in 1993. Sixty-two million watched President George W. Bush argue his case for the Iraq war in his State of the Union in 2003.

There are many reasons why Americans won't be paying as much attention to Obama. First, there is Obama fatigue. He may be wearing out his welcome after five years in office. His agenda seems very familiar, and White House officials haven't signaled that there will be any major surprises Tuesday night.

[PHOTOS: President Obama's 2013 State of the Union Address]

A large number of Americans don't approve of his performance as president – only about 40 percent say he is doing a good job – and this could depress his ratings by leaving him basically with loyal Democratic viewers and relatively few independents and Republicans. This means Obama could be preaching to the choir and not expanding his support.

A recent poll conducted for George Washington University found that 51 percent of voters say they are not likely to watch the nationally televised address at all and only 47 per cent say they are very likely or extremely likely to tune in. Fifty-seven percent doubt that the speech will be important, and only 42 percent say it will be important.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at and on Facebook and Twitter.