02/12/2013 12:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

State Of The Union Unlikely To Affect Obama's Approval Ratings, History Shows

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night may do much to outline his second term priorities, but if history is any guide, it's unlikely the speech will alter his own political standing.

Presidential speeches can make effective use of the bully pulpit to lay out an agenda or draw attention to an issue. Traditionally, though, State of the Union addresses have had only minor effects on presidential approval, as political scientist John Sides paintstakingly documents. None of the past five presidents saw their average ratings change outside of the margin of error in Gallup's polling.

The rule isn't absolute -- former President Bill Clinton's speech in 1998, for example, gave him a significant bounce in Gallup's poll. But that performance, enmeshed in the timing of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, was a rare exception.

"[H]istorical data suggests these speeches rarely affect a president's public standing in a meaningful way, despite the amount of attention they receive," Gallup's Jeffrey M. Jones wrote before Obama's first State of the Union. Despite Obama's rhetorical gifts, it's a pattern that hasn't changed.

While a number of instant reaction polls will follow Tuesday's speech, the results, more than anything else, are likely to reflect who'll be tuning in to watch. A Quinnipiac poll conducted Jan. 30 to Feb. 4 found that 86 percent of Democrats said they were likely to watch the State of the Union, compared to 46 percent of Republicans. More than three times as many Democrats as Republicans said they were very likely to watch the State of the Union.

Those numbers may overstate the actual partisan divide in viewership, but history shows that a president's backers are often more inclined to tune in for his speech. The audiences for former President George W. Bush's addresses were all heavily Republican, while Clinton's watchers, with an exception in 1995, leaned Democratic.

Pew Research found that this year's speech is viewed as roughly equal in importance to previous addresses, and that Democrats are more than twice as likely as Republicans to view the 2013 State of the Union as more important.

In the last non-election year, snap polling gave Obama outstanding ratings after his Jan. 25, 2011 speech. An online CBS poll showing immediate reactions found that 91 percent of people who watched the speech approved, and that the percentage who supported his economic plans jumped 29 points.

But in the week after the speech, Obama's approval ratings saw only a minor bounce:

As did his ratings on the economy specifically:

This year, Obama enters with a higher approval rating, around 53 percent, giving him even less room for improvement. Barring a major surprise, there's a good chance the State of the Union gives way to the polling status quo.

Mark Blumenthal contributed reporting.



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