The State of the Union: Putting First Things First

State of the Unions.  What are they good for?  Absolutely nothing. Ok “absolutely nothing” is an oversimplification.  But as best political scientists are able to discern, presidential speeches in general—like last night’s State of the Union—have little independent effect on either policy outcomes or presidential approval.  More on this in a moment.

The figure below presents the policy content of Obama’s four previous States of the Union.  The data are available at the Policy Agendas Project webpage.  The height of each bar represents the percentage of policy-specific mentions relative to all policy appeals.  For example, in 2009 Obama referenced “macroeconomics” 114 times out of 234 total policy mentions (or roughly 50%).  In 2012, by comparison, less than 25% of the Obama’s SOTU concerned economics.


A few trends jump out immediately.  First and foremost: “It’s the economy, stupid.”  On the one hand, macroeconomic content dwarfs all other policy domains.  The second largest policy domain in Obama’s previous STOUs was “banking and finance,” which accounted for 14% of all policy mentions in 2010.  But on the other hand, there has been a consistent decline in economic policy content from 2009 to 2012 (falling from 50% in 2009, to 32% in 2010, and down to 23% in 2011).  Some other notable trends include the following.  One, there was spike in “labor, employment, and immigration” appeals in 2012.  Indeed, Obama focused on both comprehensive immigration reform and the merits of vocational education in his 2012 address.  Two, there was a clear decline in health policy mentions following the passage of the Affordable Care Act in March of 2010.  In fact the only references to health care in 2011 and 2012 were brief appeals to stop “refighting the battles of the past two years.”  And three, one notable absence in the chart above is “law, crime, and family.”  The only mentions came in 2012 when Obama referenced—in one sentence each—hate crime legislation and financial crimes.  For four years there was no mention of gun control or gun violence.  Which brings us to last night’s speech.

How did last night’s speech differ from past SOTUs?  Well, like the past four addresses, it was dominated by economic policy.  If forced to guess, I’d estimate that 35% of the policy content was economic in nature.  In the first third of his speech the President referenced topics such as economic growth, job creation, debts, and deficits.  In many ways it sounded, to me, like one of his stump speeches from the past year.  Another surprising element was his proposal for a minimum wage increase, which was pitched as a way to boost the economy.  The appeal for universal pre-k legislation was also unexpected.  A final notable difference was Obama’s appeal for gun control.  Such an appeal was entirely absent in any past SOTU, as the chart above shows.  Of course, on the other hand the President's gun control proposals were not surprising in the current political climate.  Which brings me back to the initial question…

Will Obama’s appeals move public opinion and thus public policy?  At the surface there seems to be some evidence in the affirmative.  For example, in the chart above, the 14% spike in "banking" appeals in 2010 precedes implementation of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.  Of course on the other hand, six months prior to his 2010 SOTU speech, the banking and financial services industry was widely unpopular and growing less popular by the day.  Many Americans blamed Wall Street—at least in part—for the financial crisis and advocated greater regulation of the financial industry before the 2010 address.  So the crux of the issue is this: Does the president typically preempt public opinion or simply react to it?  For the most part, political scientists endorse the latter view.

Brandice Canes-Wrone explored this issue in her appropriately titled book: Who Leads Whom?  One of the general conclusions is that presidents don’t advocate policies that are unpopular.*  Moreover, Canes-Wrone finds that presidents rarely change mass opinion in their favor.  So while there is certainly a correlation between presidential appeals and the popularity of policies, the causal arrow goes the other way on balance.  Canes-Wrone is not the only political scientist to reach this conclusion.  In one fascinating study, Issues, Candidate Images, and Priming, Lawrence Jacbos and Robert Shapiro (1994) conducted archival research on president Kennedy’s private campaign polls, finding a significant relationship between internal polling and Kennedy’s public statements in his 1960 campaign.  This overall effect isn’t limited to the president.  In “Whom Influences Whom?”, George C. Edwards III finds that, for the most part, Congress, the president, and the media all respond to exogenous events.  Indeed, in similar work, namely his book On Deaf Ears, Edwards finds the presidents are generally unsuccessful in leading public opinion and pushing Congress to act on legislation.

There are, of course, some exceptions to these general findings.  For example, Edwards III finds in Whom Influences Whom that in domestic policy, rather than foreign policy, the president can exert some independent influence on Congress and the media especially when issues are off the agenda.  Canes-Wrone, by contrast, finds that in foreign policy, the president has a unique ability to frame issues and be a source of mass information.  Her research also shows that on budgetary items, presidents have some limited success in the area of domestic policy.  Overall, Canes-Wrone concludes that the effect of presidential rhetoric is “conditional.”  Other researchers have found a reciprocal relationship between mass preferences and presidential speeches, though the effect depends on the policy area (see Kim Quaile Hill’s work here).

But the larger point remains: the president’s influence over both Congress and public opinion is marginal at best, with the both responding primarily to exogenous changes in mass attitudes.  To this point, Gallup data suggests that the president doesn’t even improve his own approval rating after a State of the Union.  Based on these general conclusions, in the context of last night’s speech, I want to make two observations.  Regarding gun control, by my count the president made four specific appeals:

  • Passage of universal background checks.
  • Regulating the resale of guns.
  • Limit military-style assault weapons.
  • Limit high-capacity magazines.

Now as Congress begins drafting legislation to address these issues, some of which are likely to pass, it’s important to keep in mind that these proposals—for the most part—were popular before last night’s speech.  According to a Gallup survey conducted in December:

  • 92% favor background checks.
  • 58% feel that the sale of firearms should be made “more strict.”
  • 44% support an assault weapons ban.
  • And 62% support a ban on high-capacity magazines.

Thus, the passage of items 1,2, and 4 should not be regarded as evidence that the president preempted public opinion and pushed legislation through Congress that otherwise would have failed.  In fact, the passage of these items would be fully consistent with the conventional wisdom detailed above.  An assault weapons ban, by comparison, would, in my view.   We’ll see how much leverage the president really has in this regard.  I’m skeptical.

The second point I want to make regards raising the minimum wage.  Like the assault weapons ban, this represents a true test of presidential leadership.  But unlike gun control, which has been widely discussed since December, few people were talking about raising the minimum wage before last night.  It will be interesting to see whether the president has indeed “set the agenda” for the 113th Congress.  Based on prior work, this may be an area where the president does have some leverage (see above).  I’m still skeptical, however.  In case you were wondering, the last statement during a STOU to raise the minimum wage was Clinton’s appeal back in 2000.  He urged Congress: “I implore you to raise the minimum wage.”  Did Clinton’s appeal move Congress to act?  Hardly.  It wasn’t until 2007 that Congress passed, and President Bush signed, the next minimum wage increase.  Clinton made similar appeals in 1999 and 1998 with no effect.