Biden’s State of the Union address won’t make or break his campaign

Historically, the speech hasn't advanced the president's popularity or agenda.

March 6, 2024, 3:19 PM

Imagine giving a speech in front of an audience of tens of millions of people. Then imagine that your political future depends on it.

On Thursday night, President Joe Biden will take the speaker’s dais and deliver his third State of the Union address at a pivotal moment for him. His average approval rating is just 38.1 percent, one of the lowest points of his presidency. Many swing voters who supported him in 2020 now appear to be leaning toward former President Donald Trump, who leads in early polls of the November general election. And 73 percent of registered voters in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll thought he was too old to be an effective president.

In theory, the State of the Union is a golden opportunity for Biden to turn some of those numbers around — a chance to make the case for his policies, and (obliquely) his reelection, and to rebut fears about his age with a forceful feat of oratory. Or, if you’re a pessimistic Democrat, it’s a chance for Biden’s weaknesses to be put under the microscope: If he gives a lackluster performance or misspeaks, it could reinforce the concerns voters have about him.

But fortunately or unfortunately for Biden, in reality, his political future probably does not depend on Thursday’s speech. The State of the Union may be a chance for the president to directly address the American people, an occasion of great pomp and circumstance and an important democratic tradition, but one thing it hasn’t been over the years is a political game-changer.

I went back and took a look at 538’s historical presidential approval averages, and I found that, historically, State of the Union addresses have not led to a significant change in presidents’ approval ratings. Since 1978, presidents’ approval ratings have shifted by an average of only 1.9 percentage points in the two weeks after their annual addresses to Congress.

And that’s 1.9 points in either direction! Since 1978, the president’s approval rating has actually gone down after his address almost as many times (19) as it has gone up (21). Accounting for that, presidents since 1978 have gotten an average approval-rating boost of just 0.3 points after their big speeches.

Part of the reason why State of the Union addresses don’t seem to affect presidents’ approval ratings is probably that they’re preaching to the choir. Most years, CNN* conducts a poll of State of the Union viewers shortly after the speech, and those viewers tend to disproportionately be of the same political party as the president. For example, last year, 41 percent of CNN’s sample were Democrats, while only 31 percent were Republicans and 28 percent were independents or members of another party.

Not every political event has to affect public opinion in order to matter, of course. The State of the Union is first and foremost a governing ritual: Traditionally, the speeches are a laundry list of policy proposals that the president would like Congress to pass. The only problem is, the speech doesn’t usually inspire much lawmaking either.

For years, political scientists Donna R. Hoffman and Alison D. Howard have logged every request presidents have made in their annual addresses to Congress.** Since 1965, only 24 percent of those requests were fully enacted, and another 13 percent were partially enacted. That’s a 63 percent failure rate. (Of course, in presidents’ defense, you don’t get anything unless you ask!)

Biden’s up against two extra challenges in this regard: Congress is under divided government, and it’s a presidential election year. As we saw with a recent border-security bill, Republicans are unlikely to allow the passage of any major legislation this year that Biden can chalk up as a win. Indeed, in the last two presidential election years (2016 and 2020), exactly zero of the president’s State of the Union requests became law.

However, the president also didn’t make that many requests in the first place; in 2016, President Barack Obama made only five, while Trump made only 12 in 2020. In both cases, that was significantly fewer requests than in their previous State of the Union addresses. This might have been a tacit admission that nothing was probably going to get done anyway, moving them to deliver a decidedly un-State of the Union-y State of the Union. It will be interesting if Biden follows suit and gives what is essentially a campaign speech instead.

But again, if he takes that tack, he shouldn’t expect it to matter. For better or worse, Biden’s political future doesn’t depend on Thursday’s speech. So perhaps he can just picture all of Congress in their underwear and relax.


*In conjunction with Gallup and USA Today from 1992 through 2006, with ORC International from 2007 through 2017 and with SSRS since 2018.

**This includes State of the Union addresses plus the speeches before a joint session of Congress that new presidents give shortly after being sworn in (which aren’t officially considered State of the Union addresses).