It’s incredible to think about how, in the midst of the seemingly intractable government shutdown, the thing that finally caused a crack in President Donald Trump’s willpower was the State of the Union address. Using the thin premise of vaguely defined “security concerns” related to the ongoing shutdown, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) informed the president that, under the circumstances, she would not be sending him the necessary invitation to come to Capitol Hill to address the nation.
Trump didn’t break right away, but it was clear from the moment Pelosi sent her regrets to the president that she’d located a vulnerable tension point — Trump’s desire to avail himself of the trappings of Congress in a zazzy televised spectacle. From there, his eventual cracking seemed inevitable. For furloughed federal workers hoping not to miss further paychecks, this time-honored presidential oration ended up being their vital lifeline.
But, thanks to Pelosi, the State Of The Union address also did something it rarely, if ever does: Persuade somebody to change their mind.
Though it can seem almost unpatriotic to say, the State of the Union is overrated and largely memorable only for its occasional gaffes and controversies. That doesn’t mean the address is unimportant, or inconsequential — the public deserves to hear a full accounting of our nation’s condition, and the president can use the oration to do some not-insignificant things. But the not-quite-annual tradition lends itself to being viewed through rose-colored glasses, especially when it comes to its persuasive power. And this is an important context to keep in mind, as President Trump struggles to persuade reluctant members of the public, and of Congress, to support his border wall.
If Trump, or his advisers, are of the mind that his upcoming State of the Union address is a vital tool for reshaping public opinion — capable of bringing newly-persuaded voters to the president’s side on the matter of building a wall along the southern border, or driving a lasting bump in his approval ratings — then they are in for a world of hurt.
Historically, the address simply isn’t an engine for improving a president’s esteem with the public. As Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones explained in 2013, “Generally speaking, these addresses have had little effect on how Americans view the president, despite the widespread media coverage of them.”
The one-point average increase in Obama’s approval rating after his first three State of the Union addresses is consistent with the generally minimal impact Gallup has measured for other recent presidents. For four of the six presidents, including Obama, the State of the Union had its greatest positive impact on their approval rating in their re-election year.
One notable exception to this trend was President Bill Clinton’s 1998 State of the Union, which was delivered mere days after the Monica Lewinsky story broke. In that instance, Clinton’s approvals shot from 59 percent to 69 percent. Make of that what you will.
Last year, as Gallup reported, Trump’s approval rating did edge up from 38 percent to 40 percent in the week following his 2018 State of the Union address. It’s worth noting, however, that this increase in approval largely came from within his own party. Trump’s “approval among Republicans [rose] to 90%, the highest rating from this group since he took office,” reported Gallup. Meanwhile, “Democrats’ approval remained extremely low at 6% last week, while independents’ 33% approval was unchanged.”
Given that this presidential address isn’t capable of goosing presidential approval, it should come as no surprise that it’s not a particularly powerful engine of persuasion. But if you tune in to cable news channel’s previews of the State of the Union next week, you’re sure to encounter the idea that the address has the power to shape the minds of the electorate, and that among the stakes, for Trump, will be a unique opportunity to convince those who oppose his border wall plan to come over to his side.
The truth is, presidential speeches of all stripes lack this swaying power — and Trump has already run up against those limitations in his fight for this pet project.
As ThinkProgress noted at the time, presidential historian George Edwards has penned two of the most frequently cited texts on presidential persuasion, On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit and The Strategic President. In the former book, Edwards cites President Ronald Reagan’s own memoirs, in which the president best known for his silver tongue spills the tea on what being the president is really like:
Time and again, I would speak on television, to a joint session of Congress, or to other audiences about the problems in Central America, and I would hope that the outcome would be an outpouring of support from Americans…
But the polls usually found that large numbers of Americans cared little or not at all about what happened in Central America…and, among those who did care, too few cared…to apply the kind of pressure I needed on Congress.
In the same book, Edwards notes that Reagan’s own pollster, Richard Wirthlin, penned a memo after his re-election in which he cautioned him against making too much use of presidential oratory if he really wanted to shape consensus: “The president’s pollster told him that doing so was likely to lower his approval and generate more public and congressional opposition than support.”
As political scientist John Sides sums it all up: “Presidential speeches don’t really move the president’s job approval ratings… Presidential speeches don’t tend to persuade people on policy either.”
It makes one wonder whether Trump should have just called Pelosi’s bluff and passed on delivering the State of the Union address altogether, doesn’t it?
Well, not so fast. There are still things that presidents can accomplish with this speech — but the strategy involves signaling, not persuading.
For example, political scientist Jeffrey Cohen, in an examination of 46 years of State of the Union addresses, found that “the more a president emphasized certain issues — especially economic policy, foreign policy, and civil rights — the more Americans thought that those were important issues,” if only for a short time. Moreover, when the media adds its own amplification to the ideas and policies that the president brings up in the speech, it becomes possible for the public to “correctly answer factual questions about the policies discussed in the speech,” according to political scientist Jason Barabas.
Beyond that, the State of the Union is a unique opportunity for the president to address Congress on their turf. As Sides notes, the purpose of that encounter isn’t to persuade opposition lawmakers, in that moment, to adopt policies they’d never previously supported, but rather to “spawn additional debate and negotiation” by drawing attention to issues on which the president wants to bargain.
Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein offers a rather good explication of how this works:
One of the reasons for presidents to give high-profile speeches, indeed, is to signal to Congress (and to everyone else in the policy-making process) that this is something that’s a high priority for him. This is something he intends to fight for, and that he’s willing to bargain for…It’s not about barnstorming the nation to convince people to put pressure on their Members of Congress; it’s about trying to find some way of getting to a trade that both sides can be happy about (while also finding pressure points that can be used to help push rank-and-file Members to go along). Again, thought of in that way, the function of the speech is mostly to clearly let everyone know that the president intends to be very aggressive in doing all of that.
In the end, the State of the Union address doesn’t have the magical powers to move minds and reshape opinion. Still, the oration does possess a more earthbound utility. A president can provide the public with an idea of which direction he or she wants to take the country, and what he or she sees as their most important accomplishments. And the president has the opportunity to set the agenda for negotiations and debates with legislators — whether it’s around broad political themes, or specific pet legislative ideas.
So what areas will President Trump be looking to open up larger, long-term discussions with Congress? As with all things Trump, it’s difficult to predict what he’s going to do at any moment and how long he’ll stick with any one task before he gets bored.
Nonetheless, it’s safe to say Tuesday’s speech will likely include further discussion about the proposed border wall. It’s anybody’s guess if he’ll find a new way of talking about the subject, having already delivered a half-hour stemwinder on the matter in the Rose Garden earlier this month. During that speech, Trump occasionally sounded as if he was willing to go along with the border security ideas that House Democrats had floated. During his State of the Union, he might offer an indication if he’s warmed to those ideas further, or not.
Furthermore, ABC News reported this week that one major theme of Trump’s speech to the nation, surprisingly enough, will be “unity.” To that end, he has offered Stacey Abrams, who will be offering the Democratic Party’s rebuttal something very rare — a compliment. “I hope she does a good job. I respect her,” Trump said. (Abrams is a member of the Center for American Progress’ board. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news organization housed at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)
President Trump gets graded on a curve when it comes to performing the ministerial duties of his office. The first time he delivered a State of the Union address, the mere fact that he was able to stay relatively close to his prepared remarks and keep his rambunctious tendencies toward improvised chaos in check, earned him a few of those “now he truly is presidential” plaudits from cable news pundits. But this is a far cry from mastering the more nuanced aspects of statecraft that might allow Trump to seize what governing advantages the State of the Union address offers.
As president, Trump has rarely taken the opportunity to grow his governing coalition beyond his base and is, to put it charitably, a mercurial negotiator, even with his own party’s elected lawmakers. In many ways, his governing style — such as it is — simply doesn’t lend itself to putting to strategic use the opportunity that a State of the Union does offer a president.