President to use State of Union to Highlight Accomplishments, Set Goals for Second Term

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President Joe Biden will use this year’s State of the Union Address to appeal to the public and highlight his accomplishments and his goals for not only this year, but also for a second term, says Dominican University of California political scientist Alison Howard.

While the State of the Union Address is a governing speech and not a campaign stump speech, in an election year it serves a dual purpose, Howard says.

“President Biden will likely make the case for a second term and position himself for reelection by claiming credit for what has been accomplished and laying out what his next term would do,” Howard says. “He needs to demonstrate that he has a "policy vision" for the next term.”

Howard and colleague Donna Hoffman, the Chuck and Barbara Grassley Professor of Political Science at the University of Northern Iowa, have spent more than a decade studying presidential State of the Union addresses.

In their book, "Addressing the State of the Union," Howard, chair and associate professor of Political Science and International Studies, and Hoffman examine the evolution of the annual address and outline the ways presidents use the address to gain attention, to communicate with target audiences, and to make specific policy proposals.

The State of the Union Address provides presidents with an opportunity to claim credit for accomplishments, propose new policies, and set the tone for what the administration hopes to accomplish during the year.

“The goal of the speech is to set the agenda, be persuasive, and have congressional influence,” Howard says. “As "educator-in-chief" Biden will use the speech to explain problems facing the country and propose solutions. Biden needs to make the case for Congress to act on his legislative requests.”

The relationship between the president and the Congress needs to be cooperative, Howard notes. To emphasize this, Biden will likely focus on bipartisanship as he has in past years, for example by highlighting the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the Bipartisan Safer Community Act.

Who Biden chooses to have as his guests will be a signal to important issues for the upcoming election, a way for him to highlight accomplishments, and to push Congress to address his legislative requests.  

Among the policy accomplishments Biden will claim credit for are those that have helped the economy and highlight the strengths of the current economy, including low employment, wage increases, and inflation going down.

“In past addresses Biden has emphasized unity, shared ideals, shared dreams, and optimism,” Howard says. “Common values help people see things the same and thus become more accepting of policy proposals. Biden wants his audience to think about things they have in common.” 

“Leading into the 2024 election this will be an important and a point of contrast with Trump's polarizing rhetoric. The State of the Union provides Biden with a time when he can try to focus the public's attention.”

Hoffman and Howard examine the Addresses to better understand how successful or unsuccessful presidents are in accomplishing their legislative requests. They have analyzed legislation passed after every State of the Union Address since 1965 to see which requests presidents made of Congress were adopted the following year. On average, only 24 percent of all 1,834 requests were fully enacted by Congress, with 13.5 percent partially enacted.

Over the years, presidents have used the State of the Union address as a means of winning public support for their policies. Modern presidents (presidents since 1965) include specific calls for Congressional action in their State of the Union address, with a median of 33.5 requests per address, ranging from President Obama’s 2016 low of five to President Clinton’s high of 87 requests in 2000. 

Howard will be watching to see how many requests President Biden makes in his address. In 2023, he made 47 requests (up from 43 in 2021). The 2023 requests were fully successful 14.9 percent of the time (compared with 7 percent in 2021) and not successful 83 percent of the time (compared with 79 percent in 2021).

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