Polls and Elections: Firing Back: Out-Party Responses to Presidential State of the Union Addresses, 1966-2006

By Panagopoulos, Costas | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Polls and Elections: Firing Back: Out-Party Responses to Presidential State of the Union Addresses, 1966-2006


Panagopoulos, Costas, Presidential Studies Quarterly


The U.S. Constitution requires American presidents to deliver regular updates about the "State of the Union" to Congress. Article II, Section 3, stipulates that the president, "shall from time to time give to the Congress information about the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." This constitutional mandate establishes the formal basis upon which presidents have advanced a tradition of yearly reports to Congress about the state of affairs in the nation known formally as the "annual message" between 1790 and 1934. President George Washington combined his inaugural address and his annual message, and delivered it to a joint session of Congress in New York City on April 30, 1789. He delivered his first regular annual message on January 8, 1790.

Over time, the content and focus of the annual message has changed considerably. In the nineteenth century, annual messages were typically lengthy and technical administrative reports on the executive branch. But after 1913, when Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of presenting the message to Congress in person, it became a platform for the president to rally support for his agenda. Advancement in communications technology further enabled presidents to use the message as a forum to speak directly to the American public. The address has been known generally as the "State of the Union" since 1947, the year in which President Harry Truman delivered the first televised broadcast of the message. (1)

Since 1966, television networks have provided airtime for the opposition party to deliver a response to the president's State of the Union address. Senator Everett Dirksen (R-IL) and Congressman Gerald Ford (D-MI) delivered the first rebuttal to President Johnson's State of the Union message on behalf of the Republican Party. The tradition of televised opposition responses to the president's annual message to Congress by the out-party continues.

This study examines patterns in opposition parties' decisions about which members deliver responses to the president's State of the Union address over the past four decades. I investigate and compare the major parties' selection of rebutters with respect to their political backgrounds, institutional affiliation, and demographic and political characteristics. I also develop and estimate an empirical model to examine the impact of opposition responses on the effectiveness of a president's State of the Union address to Congress and to explore how differences in the selection of out-party representatives to deliver rebuttals helps to explain the effectiveness of the response.

Strategy of "Going Public"

U.S. presidents typically attract greater media attention than any other singular political actors. In his seminal work on the presidency, Neustadt (1960) argued that part of presidents' "power to persuade" can be derived from leveraging publicity to advance their agenda. Kernell (1997) subsequently argued that presidents increasingly employ a strategy of "going public"--appealing directly to citizens with the help of the media--to strengthen support for their policy proposals. Several studies suggest presidents may indeed be capable of influencing public views by going public. Cohen (1997) has shown, for example, that presidential communications can influence the public's agenda, at least in the short term. Most studies, however, detect only modest effects of presidential leadership on public opinion and presidential approval. Baum and Kernell (2001), for example, find that Roosevelt's radio addresses only lifted his approval ratings by 1 percentage point on average. Similarly, Ragsdale (1984) reports increases of 3 percentage points in approval in her study of presidential speeches between 1949 and 1980. Brace and Hinkley (1992) show that major addresses add 6 percentage points to presidential approval ratings. Simon and Ostrom (1989) conclude that presidents' televised speeches do not affect presidential approval at all. …

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