The State of the Union and America’s Priorities

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union or SOTU address was very well received this year, garnering sky-high ratings among those who watched the speech. But SOTU watchers tend to be dominated by partisans of the president’s party, so this year’s result is not a surprise.

More interesting was an exercise Democracy Corps conducted. They gathered 50 swing voters together in Denver, Colorado to watch and react to the speech. These swing voters were decidedly not partisans of the president’s party or Obama backers in general—48 percent were Republican and just 18 percent were Democratic, while they split their 2008 ballots evenly between McCain and Obama.

Among this skeptical audience, Obama’s speech played very well indeed. Comparing pre-speech to post-speech assessments, his job approval went up 26 points. The proportion believing he has realistic solutions to the country’s problems increased by 34 points, and the proportion believing he has a good plan for the economy went up 36 points. The total confident he could create new jobs went up by 28 points, the percent confident in his energy plans went up 22 points, and the proportion confident in his handing of the budget increased by 36 points. In addition, the proportion seeing him as a tax-and-spend liberal went down by 36 points.

One reason for this positive reaction is that Obama connected the need for increased public investment (infrastructure, education, science) and safeguarding key social programs to budget challenges in a way that resonated with the public as a whole. A recent CNN poll asked the public about a series of federal programs in the context of reducing the budget deficit. The specific query was whether they thought it was more important to cut spending in that program to reduce the deficit or more important to prevent that program from being significantly cut.

By 85-14, the public did not want to see veterans’ benefits cut and voiced similar sentiments about Medicare (81-18), Social Security (78-21), education (75-25), Medicaid (70-29), assistance to the unemployed (61-38), and programs to build and maintain bridges, roads, and mass transit (61-39).

Conservatives seeking to take an axe to the federal budget in the name of deficit reduction should heed these findings. The public has very strong priorities in the area of public spending and these are far closer to Obama’s views than theirs. In fact, as shocking as it may seem, conservatives might want to consider working with the president rather than against him.

Ruy Teixeira is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. To learn more about his public opinion analysis go to the Media and Progressive Values page and the Progressive Studies program page of our website.