The Economic Narrative in the 'State of the Union'


Dial testing and follow-up discussions with 50 swing voters in Denver, Colorado showed that President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union, for the most part, struck a powerful chord as he described his economic vision for the country. Although a few sections received mixed reactions, following the speech, voters gave the President impressive assessments on key economic measures and were especially drawn to the President’s emphasis on the three themes emphasized in his speech - innovation, education, and America’s competitiveness in the future. As one swing voter put it, “the future belongs to the people who make the what and the how.”

Despite their strong response to the State of the Union, many of these swing voters remain skeptical about Washington’s ability to deliver and are hungry for tangible changes in the economy. As one Republican-leaning participant noted, “I didn’t vote for Obama, but the more often I listen, the more I like him. I know he is a great orator, but also a good guy. I’m just doubting his ability to get it done.” Getting past their skepticism will clearly be a central challenge. 

This report details where Obama’s speech worked and where it did not, taking a particular focus on Obama’s remarks on the economy. 

Please click here to read the full analysis, which includes several excerpts from our dial readings.

Key Findings

What Worked and What Didn’t 

Overall, the speech was remarkably successful, and it had far more highs than lows. We go into greater detail below, but here is a summary of some of the sections that generated strong positive reactions from our viewers, and some of the sections that fell flat.

Sections that Worked:

  • “Out innovate, out educate and out-build the rest of the world.” The core idea of Obama’s speech did well, particularly Obama’s emphasis on education and its relationship to our national competitiveness. This was one of the strongest lines of the speech.
  • “The rules have changed.” The response to this was positive, and our post-speech focus groups made clear that this section helped convince voters that Obama understands the changes taking place in the economy and gets it.
  • Ending oil subsidies and moving to clean energy. The overall reaction to Obama’s initial call to invest in green energy was good, but not great. However, the dials spiked when he called for the creation of a clean energy standard.
  • The race to educate our kids: Parental involvement, high expectations and high rewards for teachers. Obama’s section on education was one of his strongest. The call to “win the race to educate our kids” resonated strongly and voters particularly liked the section on parental responsibility and the line that “we need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.” Obama’s call to show teachers more respect, reward the good ones and stop making excuses for the bad ones also generated a strong response.
  • Making college affordable. Obama’s call to make college affordable by making the tuition tax credit permanent was very strong.
  • Government efficiency and accountability. Obama made large gains with these voters on budget issues. They reacted strongly when Obama noted that both families and government need to live within their means. His call to rebuild faith in government by increasing accountability, efficiency and competency resonated strongly.
  • Protecting Social Security. Obama’s pledge to protect Social Security without slashing benefits or subjecting retirement savings to the whims of the stock market received a very strong response.
  • Ending tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent. This was especially strong with Democrats, but independents and Republicans also reacted positively to Obama’s insistence that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest not be permanent.

Sections that Fell Somewhat Flat:

  • Taking credit for progress. Despite recent economic gains, we have continually argued that President Obama and some Democrats are getting way ahead of voters when they try to take credit for economic progress. That was no different in this speech. Whenever Obama tried to take credit for economic progress (breaking the back of the recession, the surging stock market, increasing corporate profits), voters tuned him out.
  • “Winning the future” and Sputnik. While Obama’s core message of “innovate, educate and build” worked very well, his “win the future” framework fell flat. The President’s analogy to Sputnik also lacked resonance. These voters liked Obama’s message about competitiveness, but this framing was not overly successful.
  • Trade agreements. Obama got some positive response for his call to double exports, but his praise for further free trade agreements saw the dials of independents and Republicans move down.

Methodology

This presentation is based primarily on dial focus groups conducted with 50 swing voters (independents or weak partisans) in Denver, CO on January 25, 2011 during President Obama’s State of the Union Address. The group was split evenly between Obama and McCain voters, but also had a Republican tilt as 48 percent leaned toward the Republicans, 34 percent were straight independents and 18 percent leaned toward the Democrats.