Will reporters miss the real story on the State of the Union again?

The policy consequences are far more important than the speech's political effects

The myth of the bully pulpit runs deep in the DNA of political journalists, so it’s no surprise that the importance of the president’s annual State of the Union address to the president’s political standing is so often overstated by the press. With President Obama set to deliver this year’s address Tuesday night, we’re again republishing my media prebuttal (below) to try to preempt some common mistakes and promote a reality-based view of the SOTU’s effects.

Journalists are thankfully becoming more skeptical about claims that speeches can transform Obama’s political standing—after the past few years, how could you not?—but the temptation to portray the address as a potential turning point in preview coverage will still be powerful. The State of the Union is an easily observable event that can be framed as a potential pivot in the narrative tracing the president’s struggles since his 2012 re-election. Journalists are thus already relying heavily on “change of direction” metaphors in SOTU preview stories, which note that the speech “offers Obama an opportunity to start fresh” and “reinvigorate his presidency” at a time when he is “looking to rebound from what many have judged to be the worst year” of his administration. But as I explain below, the evidence is clear that while State of the Union addresses may help make issues or proposals somewhat more prominent, they’re unlikely to change Obama’s approval ratings much or increase Republican support for his agenda in Congress.

After the speech, the most common mistake media outlets make is to suggest that instant polls of speech-watchers are informative about the views of the American public as a whole. In reality, these polls overrepresent supporters of the president and the most politically attentive Americans and thus tell us little about public opinion. If outlets insist on conducting instant polls, they should label them appropriately, which CNN political editor Paul Steinhauser showed is possible last year.

Ultimately, media outlets that cover the State of the Union as a story about Obama’s popularity are missing the real news being made. Rather than hyping political stakes, journalists might instead try to hold viewers’ attention by communicating the gravity of the issues at stake and the possible consequences if, for instance, Obama becomes more aggressive in his use of executive orders or pursues foreign policy initiatives that don’t require the approval of Congress. State of the Union addresses are unlikely to do much to persuade lawmakers or the mass public—but they’re still an important signal of the priorities of an administration that has three years left in office and the powers of the executive branch at its disposal.

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January 24, 2012

A State of the Union Media Prebuttal
Instead of overhyping the SOTU, here’s what reporters should do

NEW HAMPSHIRE — Tonight, President Obama will address Congress and the nation in his 2012 State of the Union address. The SOTU has become both an important civic and political ritual and a signal about the administration’s policy priorities for the coming year. However, the drama of a televised presidential speech also encourages hype by political reporters who have been taken in by the myth of the bully pulpit.

Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown and Glenn Thrush, for instance, led their story on the State of the Union with the claim that “The Republican candidates… are about to get a sharp lesson in the power of the presidency.” But as Bloomberg’s Al Hunt pointed out in a column published locally in the Concord Monitor, “Obama’s speech before a joint session of Congress is likely to prove as ephemeral as those of these predecessors.”

In particular, the evidence is clear that presidents don’t tend to get a “bounce” in approval levels from the SOTU. These findings reflect a more general misperception. Despite what many reporters believe, the president can rarely change public opinion on domestic policy with this or any presidential address.

However, rather than wait for post-SOTU polling to determine if the president’s approval numbers have changed, many media outlets use scientifically dubious instant polls of people who watched the speech. These are not a valid representation of public opinion since the speech audience is a self-selected group and contains a disproportionate number of supporters of the president (because those who like the president are more likely to tune in). In addition, it may be difficult to contact people quickly; polls typically take several days to complete in order to allow time to call people back who do not answer.

As John Sides and I argued in an article (PDF) in the political science journal The Forum, a better approach for reporters would be to take what is essentially the opposite angle from the Politico lede quoted above and use the finding that SOTUs rarely create a “bounce” to draw out the challenges that Obama faces given his inability to change public opinion with this speech. Reporters could also investigate how decisions were made within the administration about the policy priorities in the address and how those are likely to contrast with the positions taken by the Republican candidate in the general election. At a minimum, though, both national media outlets and those here in New Hampshire should try to avoid covering instant poll results or at least provide proper context about their scientific validity.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan. Tags: ,