Horowitz: State of the Union Unlikely to Move the Needle

Tuesday, February 05, 2019
Rob Horowitz, GoLocalWorcester MINDSETTERâ„¢

Donald Trump
Tonight’s State of the Union address is unlikely to either improve President Trump’s dismal approval ratings or substantially increase support for his initiatives, unless it marks the beginning of a desperately needed, sustained mid-course correction.

State of the Union addresses almost never have much effect on a president’s approval rating, according to an analysis done by Gallup.  This is perhaps even more the case in today’s fragmented media structure, where less people watch the speech, than back in the old broadcast news hey day when there were very few other viewing options.  In a nation of more than 325 million people, only about 46 million people tuned in to last year’s State of the Union speech.

Not surprisingly, unpopular presidents such as Mr. Trump usually do not succeed in marshaling additional support for their initiatives.  This is especially the case when the chief proposal is an unpopular border wall that despite a continued drum beat from the White House can not attract more than 40% of the American public to back it.   And even these far short of majority support   numbers fall precipitously when people are asked is it worth shutting down the government for as President Trump  did and continues to threaten to do so again.

We will in all likelihood only look back at tonight’s speech as impactful, if it signals a beginning of a new approach from the president, one that recognizes the political reality that what he is doing is by and large not working and that his approach to the presidency is now rejected by a solid majority of the American public.  Even if he sounds some of the right notes tonight as he occasionally does, unless there is persistent follow-up, any positive effects will be temporary.

In advance of the speech, leaks from the White House suggest that President Trump will indeed appeal to bi-partisanship tonight and offer some proposals on infrastructure, drug pricing and a new effort to eliminate HIV that could attract Democratic support.  This will only work, if it is not window dressing and is followed up by presidential outreach beyond the base and continued communication of these professed new priorities.

Just as importantly, to be successful the president must temper his combative style and his penchant for spewing untruths.  He must convince a now skeptical, and pretty decided American public that he is fit for the job. The sense that he is not up to the job of president drives his unpopularity more than any of his specific policies.

I am not optimistic that the president will correct course as past presidents who have experienced sizable mid-term losses and ended up winning re-election have.   President Trump’s response  so far to the biggest Republican loss of House seats since Watergate has been to double down on the same losing strategy of demonizing immigrants and generating fear around a so-called border crisis.

But if the president did, it would be good for the nation.  There is still time for him to rescue what is best described so far as a failed presidency.  If he is going to chart a different, less divisive path, tonight is the night to begin.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.


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