Can One Speech Change the World?

The incredible shrinking State of the Union.

As much as the White House hopes the State of the Union address boosts President Obama's approval ratings and gives him an advantage in his upcoming battles with congressional Republicans, no one around the president is counting on Tuesday's speech to turn around public opinion. They recognize that no single speech can accomplish that—not even a State of the Union, with its historic hoopla, comprehensive coverage, and special status.

They are painfully aware that they are in an era of what could be called the Incredible Shrinking State of the Union address. While still important as the only presidential report required by the Constitution, the television audience for the speech is down, the expectations are diminished, and the potential political payoff is limited.

That is why the president has taken the unusual step of offering bits and pieces of his agenda in speeches and events in the two weeks before the annual address. "It's a big speech," said Stephen H. Hess of the Brookings Institution who helped write three of Dwight Eisenhower's State of the Union messages. "It has a big tradition, and it will have still have a lot of people looking at it and a lot of people commenting on it. But it's hard to see where it's going to be an important speech. I don't know what is out there that he hasn't really already said."

Hess added, "It used to be that we were waiting breathlessly for something new. That was what it was all about. Then he would take to the road and flog whatever he said. But they've switched it around, and the president has started to flog it before they had the State of the Union"¦. I don't see where there can be much in there this year. He's had some big thoughts in the last couple of weeks, and he's said them."

Certainly, it won't live up to the handful of great State of the Unions in history: Abraham Lincoln's linking the preservation of the Union with the abolition of slavery in 1862; James Monroe's declaration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823; Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" in 1941. The best that could be hoped for is a memorable phrase or statement like George W. Bush's "axis of evil" in 2002 or Bill Clinton's "The era of big government is over" in 1996.

The diminishment of this annual address is particularly striking because it was such "must-see" TV for the nation for more than six decades. That started when Harry Truman took the State of the Union to television for the first time in 1947, and the event exploded in popularity when Lyndon Johnson moved it into prime time in 1965. It was true as recently as the Bush and Clinton presidencies. Clinton drew 53 million viewers in 1998 at the height of the Monica Lewinsky revelations, according to Nielsen's numbers. Bush drew 51.8 million in 2002 and 62 million in 2003, when war drums were beating loudly in Iraq. But Obama, despite his reputation as a speaker, has never cracked 50 million viewers and risks falling under 30 million this year—less than half the audience of 12 years ago and far below the biggest audience for any of his presidential appearances, the 56 million who watched his May 2011 announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden.

According to Nielsen, Obama's State of the Union addresses were watched by 48 million in 2010, 42.8 million in 2011, 37.8 million in 2012, 33.5 million in 2013, and 33.3 million last year. The decline can be seen in comparison to the most-watched television programming every year, the Super Bowl. In 2003, the Super Bowl audience was only 22.6 million larger than for the State of the Union. Last year, it was 78.2 million larger (111.5 million viewers for the Super Bowl versus 33.3 million for the State of the Union).

Of course, those numbers don't capture those who watch the speech online, and they certainly don't mean the address is without effect. A study conducted last year by the Congressional Research Service found that the State of the Union continues to have an oversized impact. "Smaller viewing audiences do not ... necessarily mean the annual speech is less influential," the study concluded. "Many citizens rely upon media coverage of the State of the Union address to learn about the president's policy priorities"¦. Even if an individual does not watch the address on television or the Internet, the State of the Union presents a significant opportunity for the president to communicate his ideological preferences, ideals, and policy agenda to the public writ large."

What you probably won't hear in Washington, though, is anyone seriously suggesting that this address—or any one speech—can make or break a presidency. That claim was made in advance of several Clinton speeches, most memorably that 1998 State of the Union address, the day after the president angrily declared he "did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

Hess recalls the high stakes of those Clinton addresses. "You don't hear anybody saying that today. Whatever is going to be turned around will be turned around by forces that are in the works, forces that are institutional, and forces that don't depend on a presidential speech."

But even if no one expects this year's address to make or break the Obama presidency, it will still be watched for signs of where that presidency is going. "Of course, speeches don't turn things around. But they do send very important signals," said William A. Galston, who worked on several of Clinton's addresses when he was the president's chief domestic policy adviser.

"The president has foreshadowed a lot of the policy proposals in the forthcoming State of the Union. But he hasn't had a lot to say about what may turn out to be more important for the next two years," Galston told National Journal. "Mainly, how he wants to approach those issues and those areas where some cooperation and compromise with Republicans might be possible. That's really the nub of the matter."

He noted there are several issues where the Congress and the president can work together. "What really matters in the speech is what the president has to say about them. And, tonally, how he approaches the new Republican majority in Congress."

Such signals from Obama undoubtedly would be important. But Hess still misses the good old days of the State of the Union. "We used to have fun and used to have good conversations about the State of the Union," he said. "The days when all of us sat around our old Philco watching the State of the Union and then talking over the water cooler are just not there anymore."