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Breaking: This Political Event Matters (Not)

Breaking: This Political Event Matters (Not)

By David Paul Kuhn - January 26, 2010

Barack Obama's first State of the Union address is Wednesday. The political media is already in typical form. The speech is framed as the next seismic event. It's not – not if the speech's objective is shaping the American mind.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush's annual addresses combined, on average, changed their Gallup approval rating one point. The last five presidents combined averaged no change (polling was too infrequent to measure before Jimmy Carter).

The influence of modern State addresses is limited to the political class. The machinery of government listens for lessons learned and future goals. The oration is rated. But it is primarily political theater. One more anchor in the presidential narrative.

The public mind is not easily changed. It's gradually molded. So it goes with presidential power. The chief executive does not steward public opinion in quick turns. It's more like turning an oil tanker. Slow going.

Nearly all televised addresses affirm this rule. Presidential scholar George Edwards, in his book "On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit," reviewed the impact of every televised address from 1981 to 2003, also utilizing Gallup data. He found that most presidential addresses fail to significantly shape the public's views. The exceptions largely concern war: Desert Storm, the 9/11 attacks or the second Iraq war. The same is true regarding great scandals, Iran-Contra or Watergate. But in scandal and war, the opinion shift is more likely a reaction to the jarring event – not to the rhetoric about that event.

This outsized billing characterizes most of the political calendar. Consider campaigns in terms of consequential events. Endorsements almost never matter. Vice presidential debates almost never matter. Presidential debates can matter (Ronald Reagan's last debate in 1980). And, once in awhile, an election can be as big as its coverage. But last week's Massachusetts race, like those rare presidential debates, is the exception that proves the rule.

Political scientists and policy wonks have long railed against political media hype. Yet these same analysts tend to exaggerate the importance of what's important to them. Recall the extended debate over the relatively small differences between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's health care plans; veterans of legislative battles scoffed. And then there is the factoid that the economy is a driving factor in presidential campaigns and approval ratings (true only in extreme economic times like today).

Presidential addressees are peculiar in one sense. They are, like the occasional primetime press conference, broadcast live. The president's persona projected into Americans' homes. More media comes with each president. And therefore, over the years, the president is visiting more often. But absent twists in the narrative, the more we see the president the less we care. And Obama has been seen a lot. He's on every news program (even giving in to Fox). He's sitting beside Oprah for "Christmas at the White House." He's on "The Late Show" with David Letterman. And then there were those press conferences.

Obama's first press conference earned 49.5 million viewers, according to The Nielsen Company. His second, on March 24, drew 40.4 million. His third, marking his 100th day in office, drew 28.8 million. Presidents, like television shows, find it difficult to keep up their ratings.

It's usually the same with State addresses. In 2008, 37.5 million viewers watched George W. Bush's last address. In 2007, 45.4 million watched. The year before was a little lower, 41.7 million. But compare those addresses to an earlier speech tied to a dramatic news event. In 2003, amid the walk up to the Iraq war, an estimated 62.1 million viewers watched W's address. That beat Bill Clinton's peak address audience in 1998, amid the Lewinsky scandal.

Novelty is what matters in television, of course. Obama's first State address should therefore have more bang than average. W's first, 51.8 million. Clinton's first, 66.9 million. But for Clinton too, by the last season, interest dwindled. Clinton's final address, 31.5 million.

The first State address tends to shift the approval rating a few more points than normal. But by the next poll, like Clinton and Obama's health care addresses, the approval rating settles back to where it was. Larger viewership does not mean impact. It hints at public interest. But generally Americans are less interested.

We have grown numb to the televised presidency. President Obama's most watched primetime press conference earned 31 percent of American households' attention. The first televised primetime press conference, by Richard Nixon in 1969, earned 59 percent of households. Presidential debates have followed the same pattern.

Certainly, viewership and public opinion are not the exclusive metric for the importance of a political event. Blue dog Democrats will watch Wednesday's address with a big question: is this president's second year agenda going to be more help or hindrance to their reelection bid. Political reporters will watch for hints of President Obama 2.0. Version one has fared worse than average. But nearly all Americans are not concerned with these matters.

So beware of pundits who argue this State of the Union really does matter. It's like any publicist. The billing comes from someone who wants your business.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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