President Barack Obama, who delivers his third State of the Union address tomorrow, has so far failed to garner TV audiences to match the most-watched addresses by George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
The BGOV Barometer shows live TV viewership for Obama’s annual address to Congress has declined in each of the past two years, according to Nielsen data. Bush had 62.1 million viewers for his 2003 State of the Union speech just prior to the Iraq War, more than Obama’s 52.4 million for his first remarks to Congress in 2009. Clinton in 1993 drew 66.9 million viewers, the biggest audience for the annual address in the last two decades.
Political polarization has led to an overall decline in presidential speech viewing, said Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. For Obama, it would be difficult to match the audience for his first speech to Congress in February 2009, which was boosted by interest in the new administration and his status as the first black president, she said.
“There was unusual interest in him as an individual and a political phenomenon,” Fowler said in an interview. “That’s simply waned because he’s an incumbent and his approval ratings are down. He’s been in office for three years and the public is feeling surly about his presidency and Washington generally.”
The Nielsen data show State of the Union speeches tend to draw fewer watchers as a president’s term progresses, unless there is a domestic or international crisis.
Computer, Smartphone Viewing
Still, some of the shrinkage in the television audience in recent years may be the result of more people following the president’s messages via computer, DVR and smartphones, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington.
“Fewer people are watching this on television,” Rosenstiel said in an interview. “These comparisons can be complicated by the fact that there are many new ways to get information that didn’t exist in 1993 or 2003. It’s possible for somebody to watch this on their phone or to monitor it on their computer.”
Obama’s 2011 State of the Union was watched live by 42.8 million viewers on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, Telemundo, Univision, CNN, Centric, CNBC, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, according to Nielsen data. That was down 11 percent from 2010 and 18 percent from Obama’s first address to Congress in 2009.