The State of the Union is like New Year’s Eve. It is an annual tradition that has been practiced for over a century. This can be a great moment to pause and consider the coming year. And if you expect it to be life-changing, you’re going to have a bad time.
As we’ve documented here (and here and here ), the State of the Union Address has become increasingly ineffective when it comes to achieving its ostensible goals. It does not have much impact on what policies Congress pursues. This is not a good opportunity for the president to address all Americans. It doesn’t even affect the president’s approval rating. But there are some caveats to all these flaws and though it may not do exactly what we expect, the Union State is not doing any harm either. As with New Year’s Eve, you can enjoy it a lot more if you adjust your expectations.
- 1 Yes, it hardly affects the law…
- 2 … But it still sets policy goals
- 3 Yes, fewer and fewer Americans actually watch it…
- 4 … But that doesn’t mean they don’t hear about it
- 5 Yes, it’s mostly a formality…but maybe that’s okay
Yes, it hardly affects the law…
The express purpose of the State of the Union is to communicate the President’s agenda to Congress. Here’s what he thinks is important. Here he wants to give priority to Congress. And while the president will certainly say a lot tonight, whether Congress listens is another story. Political scientists Donna Hoffman and Alison Howard analyzed legislation passed after each State of the Union address since 1965 to determine which policy requests were partially or fully met by Congress the following year. They found that it was uneven at best, and on average only 24.3 percent of requests were fully enacted by Congress, while another 13.8 percent were partially enacted. Over the years, none of the requests have been met.
140 million Americans will live in states controlled by Democrats Five thirty eight
… But it still sets policy goals
Highlighting a policy goal in a State of the Union address doesn’t guarantee a president a new bill sitting on his desk months later, 24 percent of nothing. Few of these goals are implemented by Congress, especially in years when the president’s party controls both chambers. For example, about half of the policies that former President Barack Obama requested in his 2010 address were fully enacted that year by a Democratic-controlled Congress. In most years, at least some of the legislative measures requested by the President have been enacted later. And even in those rare years when they weren’t, the address could still influence policy in terms of voter awareness—as long as it made the paper the next day. Research has shown that agenda-setting media coverage of the State of the Union increases public knowledge of policy initiatives. So even if Congress doesn’t listen, voters might.
Yes, fewer and fewer Americans actually watch it…
There was a time when the State of the Union was, if not watched, at least watchable—perhaps—tuned-in. In 1993, an estimated 66.9 million viewers watched then-President Bill Clinton’s joint address to Congress, according to Nielsen. That’s nearly three-quarters of the more than 91 million people estimated to have tuned in to Super Bowl XXVII just weeks ago. But since then, ratings for State of the Union addresses have mostly gone down:
And the audiences that tune in are usually highly partisan: Democrats watch when a Democratic president speaks, Republicans watch when a Republican president speaks, but there’s little crossover. This means that during the speech, the president is speaking directly to an ever-shrinking sliver of the American population.
… But that doesn’t mean they don’t hear about it
Among the audience who tune in are Hall, journalists, and follow-up coverage of the State of the Union Address can reach a wider audience. Fewer Americans than ever get their news from live TV coverage, as they now use a variety of sources to stay informed. 39 percent of American adults still get at least some of their news from network broadcast and cable channels, while a third get their news through social media and 12 percent check national newspapers or their websites, according to the latest YouGov/The Economist poll. Get at least some of their news from “other national news websites, such as Yahoo News, Axios, Vox.” About 13 percent of Americans get some of their news from podcasts or talk radio, and 20 percent from YouTube. Preferences also tend to differ by age. Older Americans are more likely to watch TV news, while younger Americans are more likely to watch online or via social media.
All of this to say that the message of the State of the Union can still reach the American public of all ages and political stripes, even if they don’t tune in live.
Yes, it’s mostly a formality…but maybe that’s okay
Of course, none of these facts mean that the State of the Union is a particularly viable American political tradition. The real reason it persists has less to do with illusions of influence and more to do with inertia. Every president since Woodrow Wilson has delivered this address to the nation at this time of year, making it one of the nation’s most enduring political rituals. It’s not the most compelling reason to do something, but there’s something to be said for consistency and tradition. And of course there are more controversial political traditions that endure because we’ve always done it (*cough* cough *cough*). If the main purpose of the state is to keep some semblance of harmony in our increasingly chaotic political system, is that really such a bad thing?