Is Anyone Even Paying Attention To The State Of The Union?

On Tuesday, President Obama will address the nation. Lower ratings and fewer journalists may await.

Larry Downing / Reuters

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s State of the Union address is no longer the hottest ticket in town.

Normally, the Washington press corps rush early to get tickets for a coveted seated spot inside the room for the State of the Union speech.

This year though, the demand for seats has dropped off significantly, with media organizations waiting until the last minute to get their tickets to cover the event. The press galleries are still likely to be full by the time Obama takes the podium, but by late Monday afternoon that still wasn’t a sure thing.

Reporters aren’t the only ones taking a pass on spending 90 minutes or so with America’s elected representatives Tuesday night. Brad Adgate, a media buyer at the New York firm Horizon Media and a noted expert on television ratings, said he’s not expecting Obama to draw a large audience with his speech.

“I think there is a general dissatisfaction with Washington of late and that will be reflective in viewers not tuning into the speech,” he said Monday. “So it could be lower than last year’s, which was the least watched since 2000.”

Obama’s 2013 State of the Union, coming just a few weeks after voters handed him a second term, had some of the lowest ratings of any State of the Union since 2000, drawing a television audience share “just slightly higher than your average first-run Seinfeld episode two decades ago,” according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of State of the Union Nielsen ratings. The ratings for Tuesday’s speech could be worse.

A triple whammy of Washington ennui, presidential history and a changing media landscape has conspired to make this year’s State of the Union one of the least anticipated in recent memory, observers say. The White House has gamely tried to boost anticipation for the speech, pumping out speech teasers across the administration’s many social media channels — even enlisting cast members from The West Wing to help sell the speech. But with Congress likely to remain deadlocked through the election year and poll numbers for all of Washington in decline, those who keep a close eye on the office of the presidency aren’t expecting much interest once the speech begins.

A collective shrug on the part of the American people is essentially baked in, experts say.

“Heading into a midterm, almost to the point of cliche, is pretty terrible for a president. Usually by the sixth State of the Union most people have begun to, in a sense, tune the president out and they are starting to enter a lame-duck phase,” said Dan Mahaffee, director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. “Usually it’s the president’s supporters who are the most loyal viewers and by the time you get to the sixth, even your party base is looking to who might replace you. Their attention is elsewhere.”

The White House is aware of this kind of talk, and is working hard to dismiss it. Asked Monday about the chance for a smaller television audience for this year’s State of the Union compared to the 2013 address, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said a dip would be “consistent with past presidencies.”

“What is absolutely the case is that the State of the Union address, for any president in any year of his or her presidency, it is an enormous opportunity to speak to legislators in Congress, but even more importantly, to the millions of Americans, millions of Americans who tune in,” Carney said.

He’s right about declining audiences for a sixth State of the Union, said George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M noted in his field for his research on the impact of the annual address on a president’s standing.

“The fact is presidents rarely are in positions to great things in their sixth year,” he said. “It is quite typical that we do not expect a great deal out of the SOTU in the sixth year because it’s not a time to be announcing a new agenda.”

Close allies of the president watching the administration limp out of 2013 say Obama has to knock it out of the park Tuesday night.

“I think there’s a little bit of a feeling of lethargy right now. He’s had some setbacks,” former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle told Bloomberg last week. “I think he needs to re-engage and re-energize, and I think he’ll do that.”

It could be an uphill battle to grab the national spotlight however.

Changes in media — Edwards pointed to cable channels providing alternative viewing options to the State of the Union — may make it harder for Obama to draw a big TV audience. Americans can easily skip the speech if they want to. And in most cases, Edwards said, when it comes to the sixth State of the Union there’s very little reason why they wouldn’t.

“It is quite typical that we do not expect a great deal out of the State of the Union in the sixth year because it’s not a time to be announcing a new agenda,” he said. “A small amount of people are going to tune in. It’s not an Obama problem — it’s a presidents problem.”

The sixth-year president has to rely on moments from the address that get replayed over and over again to break through, observers said. That has worked for some presidents in the recent past. The previous two-term presidents to Obama actually saw increases in the television audiences for their sixth State of the Union addresses, but it’s hard to find anyone in Washington predicting Obama will do the same thing.

“[George W.] Bush and Clinton actually saw spikes in their sixth State of the Unions in terms of viewership but Clinton’s was mainly because he was beginning to announce a balanced budget and talk about the combined gains of the Republican Party and his administration,” said Mahaffee. “With Bush, there was increased attention because we were looking at questions on what would be his Iraq policy going into the midterms.”

Obama, whose speech is expected to focus on executive actions he can take on climate change and the income equality without Congress, isn’t bringing the right formula to the table to boost his audience over 2013 Tuesday, Mahaffee said.

There are some positive signs for the White House in terms of public engagement with Tuesday’s speech, however. An analysis of Twitter #SOTU chatter conducted by the company for BuzzFeed Monday found hype for the 2014 speech is running slightly above what it did in 2013. The 24 hours before last year’s State of the Union saw “189,000 tweets mentioning ‘obama’ or ‘State of the Union’ or ‘sotu/#sotu,’” said Elaine Filadelfo, a representative for Twitter. By early evening Monday, Filadelfo said #SOTU tweets were “on pace for 206,000” in the 24 hours before Obama takes the mics at the joint session of Congress.

And the president’s allies say a strong speech by Obama Tuesday can move the national dialogue in the coming months.

“Don’t listen to the cynics who don’t believe in anything, never think it’s going to work, never think anything is going to happen. Those people who start the conversation out with ‘what are the odds’ and ‘this is a waste of time,’ don’t listen to them,” said Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, who chairs the progressive caucus. “The president addressing the United States people and the members of Congress who represent them is very important. It’s important because just because the president says it, doesn’t mean it will happen but the president says it and it means we have a debate about it.”

Rep. Steve Israel, who heads up the political arm in the House for Democrats, said that the ratings for the State of the Union may not be that high, but it’s still an important moment to talk to voters and members of Congress.

“Will it get Super Bowl ratings? Maybe not. It’s not only a historic event but it points to the future and I think many Americans will tune in,” he said.

“For ‘normal people’ who watch the State of the Union, if you are more to the left you are going to agree with most what the president says. If you are to the right, you are going to disagree with him. It’s the people in the middle who will be most pivotal in this election,” he added.

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