This year’s State of the Union was watched by a record few Americans—only 33.3 million viewers, the lowest in fourteen years1.
I will be the first to admit that I did not watch the State of the Union—I was about to go to class atthe time, and I watched the beginnings of the speech, knowing that later, I could watch the entire speech on Youtube, or read a transcript of the speech the next day (I ended up doing the latter).
In a time of political inertia, the State of the Union seems to be reduced to a show. To be fair, it has always been a show, but a show in which presidents have plotted out the course of the year. But this year, the significance of the State of the Union was reduced even more than usual, due to a deep skepticism of the government’s ability to turn things around. More than sixty percent of Americans think that the country is heading in the wrong direction, and much of this is tied to the federal government, where the potential of a shutdown or a default on the nation’s debt is no longer a crisis, but a common occurrence.
Obama is facing a forty-three percent approval rating, a depressing number only worsened by the fact that Congress is at a thirteen percent approval rating. In polls, either Congress is too inflexible or the president is too inflexible—one way or another, someone is not willing to give way2.
Undoubtedly, the record few people watching the State of the Union is tied somewhat to new media—people may feel like they don’t have to watch the State of the Union live. However, many people possibly feel that the State of the Union just doesn’t have anything to offer. Public opinion barely budged after the speech—no major policy initiative was announced, but more importantly, public opinion does not expect anything to change.
The media calls Obama a sitting duck at the moment, confronted with a hostile Congress and a Democratic party scared of him chasing away votes during the midterm elections. The record few audience at the State of the Union reflects perhaps Obama’s power. The popularity of a president is power over Congress—the president can use popular opinion to tell members of Congress that the American people are behind him.
While Americans are generally supportive of Obama’s policies, they are more doubtful of his ability to carry out his policy initiatives. This malaise may be more dangerous to Obama than outright hatred towards Obama. Obama is forced to compete for Americans’ attention, rather than respect, and gettting attention is far more difficult than earning admiration.