The few enduring lines from past SOTUs stick out for irony value (Bill Clinton in 1996: “the era of big government is over”); because they herald a looming policy disaster (George W. Bush in 2002: “Axis of Evil”) -- or for the rare outbreak of candor (Gerald Ford in 1975: “the state of the union is not good”).
But most years, the speech gets submerged in the churn of the news cycle, little noted and not long remembered. It’s unlikely that 2014 will be any different. In its modern form, the SOTU is a meaningless ritual that rarely even does the president — let alone the public — any good.
That's bad news for a chief executive whose chief talent is speechifying. “I have a gift, Harry,” then-Sen. Obama unhumblebragged to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., some years ago, in the afterglow of a well-received speech. But according to the polling data and the political science research, it's a gift that won't keep on giving.
“There is overwhelming evidence that presidents, even great communicators,' rarely move the public in their direction,” writes George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. “Going public does not work.” In a 2013 analysis of SOTU polling, Gallup found that “most presidents have shown an average decrease in approval of one or more points between the last poll conducted before the State of the Union and the first one conducted afterward.”