When President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union Address today, Dominican University of California political scientist Alison Howard will be watching to see how he uses the address to both communicate with the public and make specific requests of Congress.
Howard and colleague Donna Hoffman, professor in the Department 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 assistant 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.
“Presidents can't time their address to be given only when things are going well, and this year, President Biden will deliver his State of the Union Address during a challenging time,” Howard says.
“With low poll numbers, a Russian invasion of Ukraine, high inflation, and the pandemic still taking a toll on people's daily lives, President Biden will need to deliver a speech that acknowledges these predicaments, explains his plan for addressing them, and, at the same time, reminds people of what has been accomplished since he took office.”
Additionally, Howard notes, this is a midterm election year, and maintaining the slim majority in Congress that the Democrats currently have is essential for President Biden to have any chance of furthering his agenda during the remainder of his term.
“Modern presidents are expected to be policy leaders. Rhetoric matters, and what Biden says in his State of the Union needs to make a strong case for how he will respond to external and internal events, pursue policy solutions that will improve people’s lives now and, in the future, and remind people that he has the ability to lead,” Howard says.
Hoffman and Howard examine the addresses to better understand how successful or unsuccessful presidents are in accomplishing their legislative requests. They calculate how many of the legislative requests presidents make of Congress in their State of the Union Address get adopted during the year following the Address.
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 31 requests per address, ranging from President Carter’s 1979 low of nine to President Clinton’s high of 87 requests in 2000. Presidents have been fully and partially successful 38.3% of the time, not successful 61.7% of the time.
Howard will be watching to see how many requests President Biden makes today. President Donald Trump had fewer with 24 requests, President Barack Obama had more with 45, and President Clinton had the most in the second year with 47.
Unlike previous years, guests will not be part of the audience this year because of the pandemic. However, it is still likely that Biden will recognize specific people as symbols of policy successes or policy proposals to humanize his policy agenda.
Photo above of Alison Howard (right) being interviewed by San Francisco Bay Area television reporter