Voters across the political spectrum reacted very favorably to President Obama’s focus on creating an economy “built to last” in his 2012 State of the Union address, according to dial tests and follow-up discussions with 50 swing voters in Denver, Colorado. The recent ABC/Washington Post poll also underscored the positive response among those who viewed the speech nationally.

The President was most effective when he focused on fixing Washington and changing the economy and tax regime to foster American jobs and protect the middle class from higher taxes. The strongest sections of the speech addressed new strategies for energy and education. He made his biggest personal gains on “being for the middle class,” “understanding issues that are important to my life,” and “bridging the partisan divide.” The speech also produced important gains on key issues—energy and taxes. These were significant shifts and compare favorably to previous joint session addresses. 

The President’s overarching message of “built to last” had broad appeal. These Denver voters were particularly drawn to the President’s plans to build strong foundations for the future; they found his most far-sighted and fundamental ideas the most appealing—corporate accountability, insourcing, energy development, education and job training, and tax reform (the “Buffett rule.”) Additionally, the President’s consistent theme of responsibility and accountability received a welcome audience with these voters who told us that changing the way things are done in Washington and on Wall Street is a prerequisite to improving the economy. 

The President made gains on approval and personal standing, though modest when compared to his previous speeches. He improved just 4 points on “has realistic solutions to the country’s problems,” compared to 34 points last year and an average improvement of 18 points in past State of the Union exercises. On “has good plans for the economy,” the President gained 18 points, half last year’s 36-point post-speech improvement. His approval rating on the economy climbed 14 points, compared to an average of 20 points over the last four years. 

This was not an easy audience for Obama. Our swing voters were far more Republican-leaning than Democratic (44 to 32 percent). And while just over half of the participants (54 percent) vot-Democracy Corps 2 ed for President Obama in 2008, at the outset majorities gave him negative ratings on key issues and attributes, including his handling of the economy. 

Deciding not to address the deficits, the President not surprisingly made no headway on fiscal responsibility (+2). While the President made many proposals in the address, focus group participants were skeptical that Congress would move on anything, thus his only gaining 4 points on “having realistic solutions to the country’s problems.”

Key Findings

The economy was obviously the most important element of the speech - and it is important to underscore, he achieved almost 20-point gains on “having good plans for the economy” and “creating new jobs.”

Nonetheless, these are not the kind of improvements on the economy we have seen in the past and there is reason for some caution in reactions to some important economic sections of the speech. While there is strong support for the Buffett rule and asking top earners to contribute their fair share of taxes, voters did not move their dials up in key parts of the narrative on the state of the country.

Job creation: President Obama highlighted job creation over the last two years— progress many Americans have yet to feel. Voters responded negatively to this section of the speech and highlighted it as a negative in our post-speech focus groups.

Fairness: The President called this the “defining issue of our time.” While voters support many of the policies he recommended to restore fairness (the Buffett rule, for example), this was not his strongest framework or entry point to those policies.

America is back: At the conclusion of the speech, President Obama argued that “America is back” and that “Anyone who tells you otherwise…doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” This section of the speech did not resonate for our voters in Denver and produced negative responses among Republicans and independents.

Many individual proposals were well received: On the whole, the most far-sighted and foundational ideas had the broadest appeal for these Denver voters: 

Energy: Voters reacted positively to President Obama’s call for an “all-out, all-of-theabove” energy strategy. They appreciated his proposal to build a new energy economy that would create jobs, cut costs, and improve the environment while making the United States independent of foreign energy sources, and reacted particularly strongly to his proposal to shift tax subsidies from oil and other traditional sources to clean energy.

Education: The President’s sections on education hit high notes across the board. Rewarding good teachers (while making it easier to remove bad ones), improving the quality of schools, and reducing the cost of higher education were popular among all voters. Independents and Democrats also approved of his proposal to create new standards for student retention.

“Buffett Rule”: The President’s proposals for tax reform to benefit the middle class received high and sustained support across all groups.

Insourcing: The dials jumped when the President proposed a strategy to “insource” jobs. Voters appreciated the President’s call to end tax breaks for companies that move jobs overseas and they applauded his emphasis on a new kind of corporate patriotism.

Job training: These Denver voters appreciated the President’s approach to training workers for 21 st century jobs. They strongly supported his idea to expand public-private partnerships to train workers and agreed with his plan to move workers from “unemployment” to “reemployment.”

Corporate accountability: These voters, however, worry that none of the above matters unless Washington has the courage to tackle real reform in Washington and on Wall Street.

Washington is broken: Some of the strongest responses came when the President acknowledged that “Nothing will get done this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that, because Washington is broken.” The dials spiked again when Obama highlighted “the corrosive influence of money in politics.” For many voters in Denver, this seemed to be the real point. While they worry that nothing will be accomplished until this problem is solved, they appreciated the President’s spotlight on what they believe is the real problem.

Full memo

Written by Stan Greenberg, James Carville, Erica Seifert, and Andrew Baumann.