If President Obama’s planned “call to unity” and pledge to work on centrist initiatives in his second State of the Union speech don’t have you itching to tune in Tuesday night, don’t feel too bad. Not many of your fellow citizens will watch, and even if they do, they’re unlikely to remember what it was they heard.
It’s a peculiarity of the modern State of the Union. What used to be a must-see for the country is watched by a shrinking audience. The only way to get people to tune to it, it seems, is a fresh face, a juicy scandal, or a war. Let’s look at the viewership for every SOTU going back to the beginning of Bill Clinton’s first term. The most-watched of all was Clinton’s 1993 address, which wasn’t technically a SOTU (the first speech of a president’s term, typically given less than a month after his inauguration, is officially an “Address to the Joint Session of Congress”). That clocked in with a Nielsen rating of 44.3, meaning that about one in four households with televisions was watching.
Rounding out the top five are George W. Bush’s speech in 2003 (38.8), given on the eve of the war in Iraq; Clinton’s in 1998 (37.2), given just a week after news of his affair with Monica Lewinsky broke; Bush’s 2002 SOTU (33.6), which came four months after 9/11 and three months into the war in Afghanistan; and Clinton’s 1994 speech, which came in the midst of a fierce battle over his health-care-reform plan.
Now, quick: name a memorable line from any of those speeches. If you came up with “Axis of Evil” (2002), you can pat yourself on the back. And if you came up with more than one, you’re probably either a former presidential speechwriter or a historian.
And anyway, Bush’s line isn’t famous because so many people watched the original speech. It’s famous because it set the stage for the war in Iraq and became emblematic of his foreign-policy approach. Without ensuing events, it’s just another speech. For example, the 1996 State of the Union featured Clinton’s similarly iconic statement that “the era of big government is over.” It was a pivotal moment in his administration, forecasting his triangulation, welfare reforms, and balanced budgets. But fewer than one in three American households with televisions tuned in to the speech.
“They’re not defining moments for presidents,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton. “There are a few times when the way events unfold later make something a president said memorable. I’m not sure you can know it when you see it.”
It’s not just the boring, laundry-list format that’s driven viewers away: it’s the fact that viewers have a choice. Although the number of broadcasters carrying the speech has nearly tripled in the last 20 years, anyone who turns on the TV Tuesday night will have a far greater range of choices—unlike the glory days of network television, when anyone who wanted to watch the tube had little or no choice but to watch the president.
Despite the increasing number of television viewers in the U.S., the trend is clear in absolute numbers as well as percentage of viewers. The 2000 speech scored barely half the 1993 rating, a drop from 41.2 million viewers to 22.5 million. And with the exception of 2002 and 2003, the Bush years saw consistently low ratings.
While it’s no secret that Obama faces a stiff challenge from Republicans in Congress over the next two years, the economy has stabilized, there’s no war looming, and there aren’t salacious scandals in the news. Past trends make it pretty clear that this speech won’t be a big hit. But maybe that’s just as well. It might be a sign that voters have adopted a more realistic view. “The whole notion is that the president can go out and be a great orator and change things with a few lines,” Zelizer says. “Not only are most speeches not that memorable, there’s a limit to what they can achieve.”