The Washington Times-Herald

January 27, 2014

Obama expands on social media for State of Union

By Mike Dorning
Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is deploying just about every trendy social media tool to promote a century-old ritual — the annual State of the Union address to Congress.

From a kickoff web video by his chief of staff to a presidential "virtual road trip," the White House is mounting its largest digital drive of the year to heighten the impact of Tuesday's event amid a declining television audience.

Though the 33.5 million viewers Obama drew last year is half the number Bill Clinton had 20 years earlier, the address remains a major TV event, topping both the Emmy Awards and World Series in viewership. Yet with his job-approval rating down 10 points from last year, Obama will also need the new media to engage his party's base, whose enthusiasm is vital if Democrats are to keep control of the Senate in the 2014 election.

"There are a lot of reasons to dismiss the State of the Union," said Jon Favreau, Obama's former chief speechwriter. "But aside from championship sporting events and a few awards shows, it is the one annual event that much of the country watches together."

Rooted in a quill-and-parchment constitutional clause, the address functions as a high-tech organizing tool for the White House to engage past and present supporters.

"The Internet loves moments," said Nicco Mele, a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and former webmaster for Democrat Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. "What is powerful about the State of the Union for the White House is it is a moment that they create and control."

The speech, usually about an hour long, "is the biggest engagement of the year" for the White House's digital media operation, said its acting director, Nathaniel Lubin.

The campaign includes Google Hangouts and Facebook chats by Cabinet members and senior administration officials, a flood of advance Twitter messages under the hashtag #InsideSOTU, and an "enhanced" web live stream of the speech with graphics and data amplifying Obama's themes. As part of the build-up, speechwriter Cody Keenan did a one-day "takeover" of the White House's Instagram Account featuring photos of preparations.

Last year, the enhanced video of the speech on the White House website was viewed more than 1 million times, said Matt Lehrich, an Obama spokesman.

Five years into Obama's presidency, the televised address and, even more so, the social media campaign mainly motivate current and lapsed supporters rather than persuade opponents or the undecided, said George Edwards, author of "The Strategic President: Persuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership."

"He needs to get that core a little more enthusiastic," said Edwards, a political science professor at Texas A&M University. "He needs to remind people who may be falling away why they supported him in the first place. You don't want them sitting on their hands."

After a year in which his administration botched the roll- out of his signature health plan, the gun lobby defeated him in Congress and he shared blame for partisan gridlock, Obama's public standing is damaged going into the midterm congressional election campaign.

The president's job-approval rating for the week ended Jan. 19 was 40 percent, down from 50 percent a year earlier, according to Gallup. The drop among self-identified political liberals was steeper, declining to 62 percent from 81 percent a year earlier.

History suggests Obama won't have much success with the legislative program he announces Tuesday.

While he saw the passage of more than half the legislative initiatives he announced in his annual congressional addresses when Democrats were in control during the first two years of his term, that has dropped to a 23 percent success rate in the three years since Republicans gained control of the House, one analysis shows.

Last year, Congress enacted only two of 41 legislative requests in his State of the Union speech — reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act and raising the legal debt limit to avoid a U.S default. That amounts to a success rate below 5 percent, according to the analysis by Donna Hoffman of the University of Northern Iowa and Alison Howard of the Dominican University of California.

The State of the Union has sometimes helped presidents succeed in pushing through their initiatives, producing storied moments since Woodrow Wilson in 1913 revived the long-dormant tradition of appearing before Congress in person to fulfill a constitutional requirement that presidents report on the State of Union "from time to time."

Most presidents since Thomas Jefferson previously had covered that obligation with a written statement.

Some of the State of the Union speeches have had famous moments. Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941 declared the "Four Freedoms." Lyndon Johnson in 1965 called for "The Great Society," including the War on Poverty social programs. Bill Clinton in 1996 pronounced "the era of Big Government is over." George W. Bush in 2002 identified an "Axis of Evil" composed of Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

Still, modern presidents have rarely improved their popularity through the annual speech.

On average following State of the Union addresses, presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bush went down in approval 1 percentage point and George H.W. Bush down 4 percentage points, according to a Gallup study covering speeches going back to 1978.

Clinton was the exception. His job approval surged 6 percentage points after the 1996 election-year address and 10 points following his 1998 speech, given shortly after the revelation of his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Obama averaged a 1 percentage point gain in job approval after the address during his first term.

Favreau, now a founding partner in the Washington communications consulting firm Fenway Strategies, said Obama doesn't approach the annual address seeking an "ephemeral" polling bounce.

"The president is always playing a longer game," he said.

Obama likes to use his largest guaranteed audience of the year and the rare opportunity to speak for a full hour without interruption by the media to reinforce the broad themes of his presidency, which are largely unchanged from his 2008 campaign, Favreau said.

"Some of the policy initiatives are unfinished from the year before, some are new," Favreau said. "But people don't really get a chance to hear from him directly all the time. Reminding people of that vision he has had from the beginning is valuable."