Obama's State of the Union Address: An Opportunity, Overhyped

There probably won't be an immediate bump, but this might be a turning point.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Gallup brings some bad news for Obama partisans: State of the Union addresses don't typically give presidents a polling bump. The polling organization looked at its pre- and post-State of the Union polling numbers for presidents going back to Jimmy Carter. The only one who came out ahead was Bill Clinton, who averaged a three point boost in his approval ratings. Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush averaged a point decline, while George H. W. Bush averaged a three point drop.

Those statistics help explain why tonight's speech presents an opportunity for President Obama, but perhaps not the one sought in instant analysis and overnight poll numbers.

It really shouldn't be surprising that presidents get such a small bump from the speech. For such a celebrated and ceremonial moment, the State of the Union is often a crashing bore. Part of the reason for that is endemic to the speech. Yes, it's the president's one guaranteed moment to commune with the country and lay out his agenda for the year. But for that reason, policy suggestions have been pouring in to the White House speechwriters' offices for months now, every agency hoping to get a precious line for their pet program.

So the speech often turns into a laundry list. It has to cover the policy waterfront--a presidential agenda is a sprawling thing, even for presidents who try to take on less at once than has Obama (which is to say, most of them).

As a result the State of the Union has brought few memorable moments. FDR introduced the "four freedoms" in 1941; Truman's 1949 speech included his promise of a "fair deal"; JFK announced his plans for a manned moon mission in a special "second" State of the Union speech in 1961; in 1982, Reagan inaugurated the tradition of having a hero in the first lady's box with Lenny Skutnik; Clinton declared the end of the "era of big government" in 1996; and W. gave us the "axis of evil" in 2002. That's a half dozen examples in nearly 70 years. And for each one there's a "new federalism" (Nixon, 1970) or a "new foundation" (Carter, 1979), not to mention scores of other pieces of long-forgotten rhetorical detritus.

And while Obama is a remarkable speaker, he is at his best when seeking oratorical heights (hope and change) or when tackling a single issue with nuance and depth (race, during the primary or just wars, during his Nobel acceptance). The State of the Union doesn't play to either strength.

That's not to say that Obama won't give a good speech; and it doesn't mean that he doesn't have a long term opportunity. This is a chance for him to reset, restart and reintroduce himself to voters. His speech won't itself turn around Obama's slide, but it can provide a road map and a first step--with the proper follow-up. Clinton's "era of big government" speech worked in part because it was thematically of a piece with the tone he would set throughout the year.

Obama's speech is expected to be long on populism and fighting. In that regard it may most closely hearken to Truman's 1948 address. "Congress meets--Too bad too," Truman recorded in his diary before the speech. "I'm to address them soon. They won't like the address either." His address was a keynote for the campaign, drawing sharp lines with the Republican Congress. Obama has a trickier task: He needs to draw bright lines and take a combative tone, not with Republicans (voters want everyone to get along), but with big business, special interests, and so forth.

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