State of the Union speeches give presidents a unique platform to make their case. In 2001, 88 percent of those watching George Bush's first address to Congress approved of his policies and his overall rating went from 50 percent in early February to 60 percent in the days just after the speech.
In a poll done by Knowledge Networks for CBS News after Tuesday night's State of the Union speech, 81 percent of Americans said they believed that President Bush had the same priorities for American that they had.
Before the speech, only 54 percent of those same people said he shared their priorities. When it comes to taxes, before the speech 54 percent said they thought their taxes would increase in the next year; afterward that number dropped to 27 percent. Forty-one percent said they thought their taxes would go down compared to only 15 percent who thought they would decrease before hearing President Bush.
Every year, pundits hype these speeches saying that the President "must hit a homerun or else." But this year the stakes seemed particularly high for George Bush. In a poll conducted by CBS News and the New York Times January 19-22, 2003, President Bush's job rating was back at 59 percent, just about where it was in his first year but down significantly from the 90 percent following Sept. 11. His foreign policy rating was down to 52 percent, and only 44 percent approved of his handling of the economy.
In that same poll Bush's tax cuts, beloved by his conservative base but blasted by Democrats, were a low priority for most Americans. And fifty-five percent believed that the Bush administration was too quick to involve the military against Iraq. While two thirds approved of taking military action to remove Saddam Hussein, 62 percent believed military action would increase the threat of terrorism.
In the CBS poll taken immediately following the speech, support for military action in Iraq went up to 77 percent indicating the power of a President to persuade -- especially if the opposition is silent. Democrats came out swinging against him on domestic issues, but their reaction on Iraq was mixed. Rep Dick Gephardt reiterated his support for the President on Iraq while Senator Edward Kennedy demanded a return visit to give specifics on the evidence.
Bush's political team had tried to lower expectations for the speech. Late Tuesday afternoon, the Republican National Committee mass-mailed a memo from pollster Mathew Dowd saying that State of the Union speeches at this point in a president's term don't usually move poll numbers, citing Reagan in 1983 and Bush 41 in 1991, both of whom lost support after their speeches.
Dowd's magic number was 63 percent, which was Bush's approval rating at the time of the successful midterm elections of 2002. Michigan State University political scientist David Rohde agrees that the President is still in pretty good shape "although he has to be careful that this good shape doesn't unravel ... If (his poll ratings) are at this level in the fall of 2004 I am sure he would be absolutely delighted."
Bush began his speech with a range of domestic issues determined not to fall into the mistake of his father who was strong on foreign policy but weak on the economy. He made a case for tax cuts, changes in Medicare, drug benefits for the elderly, energy independence and that Republican favorite, skyrocketing malpractice insurance costs.
But it was on Iraq where the rhetoric got hot. Northeastern University professor Dennis Sullivan said "It took him a half an hour to get up and running in terms of being able to deliver a forceful argument. I think he wanted to be 40 minutes into the speech from the beginning. He wanted to tell us we are going to war with Iraq and I think that is what he told us."
Bush's advisors say that this was the first of several the President and his Secretary of State will make in the coming weeks outlining the case against Saddam Hussein. They are hoping that the platform he had on Tuesday night will get things back on track. In 1998, Bill Clinton's State of the Union speech delivered a week after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke probably saved his political career.
After the speech, 81 percent of viewers said they approved of Clinton's proposals and that reaction provided a hook for the White House spinmeisters who were engaged in a desperate attempt at damage control. From then on, they were able to separate Clinton's personal scandal from his public policies - and provide a rationale for Clinton's staying in office.
Bush's political goal Tuesday night was much different from Bill Clinton's. His personal evaluations are not problematic, although the number of Americans who say they believe he's really in command of things is still lower than his advisors would like. But, his policies - both foreign and domestic - have been in question lately and this speech and , at least the instant reaction to it, should give the Bush folks some optimism that he still has the power to move the American public.
Douglas Kiker of the CBS News Political Unit contributed to this analysis.
By Dotty Lynch