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How much does the State of the Union Address matter?

Date
12 February 2013
How much does the State of the Union Address matter?

As the world’s largest economy and second largest emitter, policy leadership from the United States will be critical in the transition to a Clean Revolution. The Climate Group’s Head of US Policy, Evan Juska analyzes the latest US climate policy developments and trends, here focusing on Obama's upcoming State of the Union Address. 

By Evan Juska, Head of US Policy, The Climate Group.

Climate policy advocates, who received President Obama’s inauguration speech with cautious optimism, will no doubt be looking towards his State of the Union (SOTU) address for more details on how he intends to “respond to the threat of climate change.”

Rightly so, since Presidents have traditionally used the SOTU speech to outline their legislative agenda and exercise the power of their bully pulpit.

But with so much attention placed on the big speech, it’s worth considering how effective the SOTU has been historically in advancing the President’s legislative goals.

According to research by political scientists Donna Hoffman and Alison Howard, policies proposed in the SOTU, dating back to 1965, have been enacted by Congress an average of 43% of the time – with a slightly lower success rate for second-term addresses (38%) and addresses during years of divided government (40%). In his first-term, President Obama was no exception, with a SOTU success rate of 45%.

The significant variation between SOTU success rates in a given year (as shown in the graph below from the Congressional Research Service) means that we shouldn’t read too much into this data.

But for climate policy advocates, it does serve as a reminder that, when it comes to new legislation, getting on the President’s agenda is only part of the battle.

And in some cases (such as Lyndon Johnson in 1967, Richard Nixon in 1971, Gerald Ford in 1975, Jimmy Carter in 1979, Ronald Reagan in 1983, 1985, and 1987, and George Bush in 1992), not even the most important one.

SOTU Legislative Proposal Success Rates (1965-2002)

state of the union address america

Read more by Evan Juska in The Climate Group's Blogs.

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