As President Barack Obama prepares to make his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, here are several contextual considerations to keep in mind, from the perspective of the American people:
1. Obama's job approval rating is up significantly from last January at about this time. For the week ending Jan. 18, Obama averaged 46% job approval. For the week ending Jan. 19, 2014, his average approval was 40%. His overall average so far in his six years in office has been about 48%, so he is still slightly below that average as he goes into this speech. But he is doing better now than has been the case for about a year and a half. By way of comparison, when President George W. Bush made his State of the Union address at the end of his sixth year in office (January 2007), his approval rating was 36%.
2. Obama will give his speech in the House chamber at the Capitol building, and as he speaks he will be looking out over the assembled members of both the House and the Senate. As he does so, the president can recognize, at least inwardly, that his approval rating at this point is running about 30 percentage points higher than the approval rating for Congress as a body. Of course, many of the House members and senators have high approval ratings among the constituents who elected them, but taken as a whole, the body of Congress is in much lower repute than is Obama -- as far as the average American is concerned.
3. Despite the discrepancy in job approval ratings, Americans are decidedly mixed when it comes to the question of who they want to have more influence over the country in the year ahead -- Obama or the Republicans in Congress. Thus, Obama must recognize that it's still a quite even playing field when it comes to the public's choice of himself, or John Boehner/Mitch McConnell, as the ones to have the most influence in the year ahead.
4. Obama will also be looking down at ribbon-bedecked generals and admirals representing the nation's armed forces as he makes his speech, and should realize that these individuals represent the institution in the United States that continues to be held in higher regard by the public than any other.
5. The president can note that the American public's satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S. is up significantly from a year ago. Now at 32%, it was the inverse of that last January, at 23%. In fact, we have to go back to 2007 to find a January when satisfaction was higher than it is now -- 35%. Satisfaction with the way things are going was at 13% when Obama took office in January 2009, and by the time of his first State of the Union address in January 2010 it was 23%. From that point on it was 19% in January 2011, 18% in January 2012, 25% in January 2013, and then -- as noted -- 23% in January of 2014.
6. Americans are much more positive about the U.S. economy now than they were last year at this time. For the first two weeks of January this year, Gallup's Economic Confidence Index has averaged +4 and +2. Last January, the Index averaged -16. But that was, in turn, much higher than January 2009 when Obama took office, when the Index was an extraordinarily dismal -54, not far below the -60 recorded in October 2008 -- the lowest in Gallup's tracking history. Further, the public's satisfaction with the nation's economy is up by 13 points from last January, gaining more than any other of 27 dimensions tested on a satisfaction scale in both months.
7. If the president focuses in his speech on the American public's listing of the most important problems facing the nation, he will first and foremost address problems the American public has with the government itself -- since that is the top problem facing the nation mentioned by the public in our January survey. The president may be tempted to call out Congress in that regard and assume it is Congress' fault that the public is so down on government. But Americans also have a low regard for the way the federal government operates in general, with the continuing examples of poor execution in such government agencies as the Veterans Administration, the Secret Service, the IRS, the way in which the Affordable Care Act exchanges were initially rolled out -- and further back the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks, the failed levees in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina, the collapse of the major I-35 bridge in Minnesota and so on. Most of the proposals Obama will make will, in one way or the other, be based on the government doing things or taking certain actions. Attention to the way in which government can actually execute these assignments would be highly appropriate from the people's perspective.
8. The president will no doubt mention race relations in his speech, and this would seem to be warranted. While the percentage of Americans mentioning race as the top problem facing the country is only 5%, satisfaction with race relations in this country has dropped by 25 points since last January -- more than any other single issue.
9. A final point: While presidents spend a huge amount of time and effort preparing for, rehearsing and then delivering their State of the Union addresses, the data show that they rarely make a great deal of difference in job approval ratings. We wouldn't therefore anticipate that this year's speech will cause a major shift in the president's job approval ratings. But by next week we'll be able to see if it does.