For presidents, the annual State of the Union address means trying to find a fresh way to outline top priorities. For pollsters and journalists, it means trying to find novel ways to check in on the state of the presidency, and often a breathless wait to see if the president's message has managed to break through the noise and change anyone's opinion.
With rare exceptions, though, a State of the Union speech does little to change the public's collective mind about the person who delivers it.
Here's what President Barack Obama's approval rating looked like in the weeks before and after last year's State of the Union, on Feb. 12, 2013:
The pattern of State of the Union addresses failing to make much of a dent in public opinion isn't new, or unique to Obama's presidency. It's held largely true for the past five presidents' addresses.
A new HuffPost/YouGov poll shows the State of the Union may be of minor importance to most Americans. Only 35 percent said that they watched last year's address, and even fewer -- 6 percent -- said that they could recall its contents "very well." Another 23 percent said they remembered it "somewhat well," while a combined 70 percent said they didn't remember it very well (28 percent) or didn't remember it well at all (42 percent).
Only 7 percent could correctly identify a specific proposal -- reducing U.S. gasoline usage by 20 percent in the next 10 years -- that was NOT included in last year's address. That proposal came from George W. Bush's 2007 State of the Union, and Americans' inability to pick it out of a lineup may speak less to public ignorance and more to a general sense of sameness to the presidents' speeches, regardless of the year.
This year, Obama will attempt the rare feat of delivering an address that moves public opinion at a time when he has significantly less support than in past years. After steadily declining through most of 2013, his approval rating has settled into a rut, at an average of 42 percent across public polling, down about 9 points from this time last year and lower than at the time of any of his previous annual addresses. The average approval ratings for his three top issues are no better: 39 percent on health care, 40 percent on the economy, and 41 percent on foreign policy.
An ABC/Washington Post poll released this weekend finds that just 37 percent of Americans have a good or a great deal of confidence in Obama's ability to make the right decisions for the country's future, down from 43 percent in 2010 and 61 percent when he was first elected.
The new HuffPost/YouGov poll shows that few Americans think he'll be able to change their opinion. Only 9 percent admitted the possibility that the address might change their views, while 65 percent said that the address will most likely confirm what they already think about the president and his positions. Fifty-five percent of respondents said they don't even plan to watch the address, including 41 percent who said they don't want to.
Sixty-two percent of independents and 62 percent of Republicans said that they don't plan to watch, leaving Obama to speak to a more sympathetic audience, but also one that needs little convincing about his policies.
Obama's party faces its own challenges, however. A Pew Research survey released Monday found Republicans with a 10-point advantage over Democrats in the public's trust to handle the federal budget deficit, and a 5-point edge on dealing with the economy.
But the Democratic Party is seen as less extreme in its positions than the GOP by a 19-point margin, and is considered more likely to work across the aisle by a 25-point margin, according to Pew. More than half of Americans say the Democrats are more concerned with "the needs of people like me." Democrats have also regained an edge in trust on dealing with health care after a significant drop-off in September. The Democrats also hold a smaller edge in the public's perception of which party is more ethical, while the two parties are perceived as on equal footing in their capability to manage the federal government.
At the same time, the Pew poll shows that Americans' priorities have shifted over the course of the last year. Sixty-three percent now identify reducing the budget deficit as a top priority, down from 72 percent last year -- the first time during Obama's presidency that concern about the issue has fallen. Concern for helping impoverished Americans was also down, with 49 percent citing the problems of poor and needy people as a top priority, compared with 57 percent last year. In both cases, the change was partisan. Just 49 percent of Democrats see cutting the deficit as a top priority, compared with 67 percent last year. Among Republicans, the percentage prioritizing issues of poverty fell to 32 percent, from 46 percent last January.
Those changes stand out because, although modest, they're among the biggest shifts in public opinion from previous years. Americans' priorities on the issues they'd most like to see tackled have shifted little. As in polling conducted every year since Obama took office, the vast majority of the Americans say the president's focus should be on domestic policies, particularly on improving the economy and addressing unemployment.
The state of the State of the Union, in other words, is pretty much the same as ever.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted Jan. 23-24 among 1,000 U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.
The Pew Research poll surveyed 1,504 adults by phone between Jan. 15 and Jan. 19. The ABC/Post poll surveyed 1,003 adults by phone between Jan. 20 and Jan. 23.