As President Barack Obama prepares for his final State of the Union address Tuesday night, the White House says he will employ a “nontraditional” approach, focusing less on specific policy initiatives and more on the country’s future. Topics that highlight the wealth gap and “every American having a shot in this changing economy” will resonate with the public, Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, predicted while making a tour of Sunday morning talk shows.
That may sound like a president calling on the vestiges of his 2008 hope-and-change rhetoric to present a new vision. But now, Obama is saying, the change he wants for America can come if voters participate in democracy — and presumably elect another Democrat to succeed him.
The expected discussion of economic inequality is a timely one at a time when voters have said they lack confidence in the country's financial future. But the speech won't significantly affect the 2016 race for the White House, both political analysts and historical precedent indicate.
“I don’t think a single speech can change the fundamental structural dynamics at play in our country and in our politics,” said Matt Dallek, a professor of political management at George Washington University in Washington. “But it is a moment at which the media and the Congress, all eyes in the political world get drawn to the president.”
Typically this attention means a president can set the policy agenda for the year ahead or shape the political conversation. But because this is his last term, Obama will take a broader view in this address, the White House has said.
— Denis McDonough (@Denis44) January 6, 2016
While Obama might be hoping to secure his legacy with a big-picture appeal to the American people, the State of the Union has a history of barely changing public opinion about the president delivering it. According to data collected by Gallup, the past five presidents saw very little change in their public standing after giving the annual address — and, if their numbers moved at all, most of them actually lost a few approval points.
The president’s approval rating currently sits at 44 percent, which is lower than what Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton each saw during their last years in office. Only Clinton saw an approval bump after his State of the Union address, and that was the year he got to announce a balanced budget.
Political scientists have found similarly negative conclusions about presidential addresses. Presidential scholar George C. Edwards found not only that presidential speeches don't move the president’s job approval ratings, they can sometimes hurt support for pet policy issues. In his book “The Strategic President,” Edwards wrote that Ronald Reagan’s public appeal for increased defense spending was followed by a decrease in support for more spending.
Recent years have also shown a decline in public interest in presidential speeches. Fewer than 32 million Americans watched the 2015 State of the Union address, compared with 114.4 million who watched the Super Bowl last year. A YouGov/Huffington Post survey from before the 2014 State of the Union showed that 35 percent of Americans had watched the address the year before, and just 6 percent said they could remember its contents “very well.” This year, viewership is not expected to rise, said Lara Brown, an expert on presidential elections and director of the political management program at George Washington University.
“At the end of the day, the president is speaking more to historians than he is to anyone who is involved in the campaign fray or the public,” Brown said. “A president’s rhetoric is like background music to a movie. The music oftentimes gives you signals or sets the tone for what you're likely to expect, but it’s not necessarily part of your conscious thought process.”
Still, even if Obama’s speech Tuesday night won’t likely have a long-term effect on how the public sees him, it has the potential to shape some of the conversation on the 2016 campaign trail leading up to Iowa and New Hampshire.
The president has recently signaled that he wants to avoid becoming a lame duck during his last year through policy moves like his executive actions on gun control and his immigration raids over New Year’s weekend. Both of these topics have already proved controversial for the Democratic presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley have all condemned Obama’s deportation raids, while Sanders has been called out for his changing views on gun control.
“I think he’ll be very, very careful if he raises those issues, to talk about them in a way that opens the door to allow other people to talk about them,” said Vanessa Beasley, an expert on U.S. political rhetoric and the director of the American studies program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Regardless of Obama's policy goals, a State of the Union address is more about the president himself, Beasley said. She added that Obama will likely want to look presidential in comparison to the mudslinging that has gone on in the 2016 race so far. As he hopes to discuss broad ideas, Tuesday night could be an opportunity for Obama to return to the inspirational rhetoric he used during his first campaign for president.
“Many people have noticed that there’s something in his voice, his urgency, the energy he wants to bring to some issues,” Beasley said. “The question will be, can he get back into the voice he had as a candidate?”
With a State of the Union address in the middle of a primary campaign season, some analysts said the viewers most likely to tune in are those who already hold staunch party loyalties. If that is the case, then Obama’s speech to the country won’t convince any new voters that Democrats are for them in 2016.
“The goal is not an attitude change from people who are already against you,” Beasley said. “He has a lot to gain. He’s already lost what he’s going to lose, so that gives him some freedom to be creative and maybe more candid about his goals.”