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Monday, January 27, 2014

What Americans Want to See Addressed in the State of the Union Speech

President Barack Obama makes his annual State of the Union address Tuesday, Jan. 28 at the House of Representatives in Washington. Although the mandate for what the president’s report to Congress should contain (or even how and when it should be delivered) is not specified in the Constitution, most presidents in recent years have made an in-person speech at the House and have used the time to outline long, long lists of their political and policy goals and aspirations. No doubt President Obama will continue this legacy, presenting a detailed wish list of things he would like to accomplish in his three remaining years in office.

Our job here at Gallup is representing the people of the United States by continually assessing their views and opinions. Therefore it makes sense to focus on what the data indicate the people would like Obama to address in his message.

We don’t have any specific information from Americans measuring their views about how long they think the State of the Union address should be, or how many distinct and different proposals it should contain. Polling conducted before Obama's 2012 address showed that Americans wanted specifics rather than broad visions, but didn’t get into the details of length or how varied it should be. 

There are certainly pressures for the president to recite a long list of issues in his address, in large part because he needs to satisfy broad constituencies and interest groups that want their particular cause or interest to be mentioned.

But from the perspective of the American people, there would be value in the president's focusing on just a couple of major issues or points. That stems from the assumption that in today’s highly information-saturated world, there is great value in simplicity and focusing on just a few key themes. By going down a long list, the president will leave many citizens more confused than focused, particularly because many no doubt realize that a president’s State of the Union wish list almost certainly will remain in large part unfulfilled. By focusing on just two major themes, the president has a higher probability of leaving an impression on the American public.

Those two themes would be the economy on the one hand, and fixing government on the other.

That’s it. There is a lot more going on of course, but my reading of the data is that these two concerns swamp almost everything else at this point. A focused emphasis on just these goals might actually leave the public with a more satisfied reaction to the speech than would a scattershot listing of policy implementations.

Take a look at the accompanying chart, which shows the first- and second-most-frequently mentioned issues when Gallup has asked Americans over the past year to name the most important problem facing the country.

Two issues top the list: the economy/jobs and dysfunctional government. And in all but two instances, one of these has been the second-most-frequently mentioned problem (the exceptions are one mention of healthcare and one mention of the federal budget deficit).

The economy is the No. 1 issue that Americans say the president and Congress should focus on -- out of a long list of issues we recently put in front of Americans -- and Americans are least satisfied with the economy in the same list.

As for dysfunctional government? The list goes on and on. Congress approval has over the past year reached record lows; a record-low percentage of the public says that most members of Congress and their own personal member of Congress deserve re-election; positive images of the federal government are near record lows; big majorities of Americans are dissatisfied with how the government works; big majorities are dissatisfied with the size and power of the federal government; and so on.

Because Obama is head of the government, and because he has often shared his belief that the government should be an instrument that is used to help citizens and fix problems, there is no doubt he will list ways in his speech that the force of government should be used to ameliorate the problems he enunciates. But the data suggest that he could usefully focus first on fixing the government itself -- before recommending that the government be used as the instrument to fix problems.

The president will be looking out at an audience of most members of the House and the Senate, and the heads of many government departments. One of the first questions he might ask in the speech could be, “Why does the American public dislike us so much?” And the second could be, “What can we do to restore faith in the public’s democratic institutions and in the efficiency of government?”

In other words, a look at the process rather than the actual issues.

After addressing problems with government, the president could focus on the economy. At that point, the president could expand his focus, in theory subsuming issues of poverty and homelessness, healthcare, education, Social Security and Medicare, and taxes. All of these are in the top quadrant of our recent analysis of the juxtaposition of Americans’ priorities with Americans’ satisfaction with a list of issues -- and all, in one way or another, deal with the economy.

In short, the president could fruitfully address Congress and the nation by saying, “Good Evening. The State of the Nation tonight is particularly bad, according to this great nation’s citizens, in two areas. These are the ways in which the people’s elected representatives are discharging their responsibilities here in Washington, D.C., and the current state of the economy. I will spend the rest of my time tonight addressing both of these issues, telling the American people what I recommend be done to help fix these issues.”


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