State of the Union 2012: ‘Built to Last’

Voters across the political spectrum reacted very favorably to President Obama’s focus on creating an economy “built to last” in his 2012 State of the Union address, according to dial tests and follow-up discussions with 50 swing voters in Denver, Colorado.  

The recent ABC/Washington Post poll also underscored the positive response among those who viewed the speech nationally. The President was most effective when he focused on fixing Washington and changing the economy and tax regime to foster American jobs and protect the middle class from higher taxes.

The strongest sections of the speech addressed new strategies for energy and education.  He made his biggest personal gains on “being for the middle class,” “understanding issues that are important to my life,” and “bridging the partisan divide.”  The speech also produced important gains on key issues -energy and taxes.  These were significant shifts and compare favorably to previous joint session addresses. The President’s overarching message of “built to last” had broad appeal.  These Denver voters were particularly drawn to the President’s plans to build strong foundations for the future; they found his most far-sighted and fundamental ideas the most appealing – corporate accountability, insourcing, energy development, education and job training, and tax reform (the “Buffett rule”).

Additionally, the President’s consistent theme of responsibility and accountability received a welcome audience with these voters who told us that changing the way things are done in Washington and on Wall Street is a prerequisite to improving the economy. The President made gains on approval and personal standing, though modest when compared to his previous speeches.  He improved just 4 points on “has realistic solutions to the country’s problems,” compared to 34 points last year and an average improvement of 18 points in past State of the Union exercises.  On “has good plans for the economy,” the President gained 18 points, half last year’s 36-point post-speech improvement.  His approval rating on the economy climbed 14 points, compared to an average of 20 points over the last four years. This was not an easy audience for Obama. Our swing voters were far more Republican-leaning than Democratic (44 to 32 percent). And while just over half of the participants (54 percent) voted for President Obama in 2008, at the outset majorities gave him negative ratings on key issues and attributes, including his handling of the economy. Deciding not to address the deficits, the President not surprisingly made no headway on fiscal responsibility (+2).  While the President made many proposals in the address, focus group participants were skeptical that Congress would move on anything, thus his only gaining 4 points on “having realistic solutions to the country’s problems.”

The economy was obviously the most important element of the speech – and it is important to underscore, he achieved almost 20-point gains on “having good plans for the economy” and “creating new jobs.” Nonetheless, these are not the kind of improvements on the economy we have seen in the past and there is reason for some caution in reactions to some important economic sections of the speech.  While there is strong support for the Buffett rule and asking top earners to contribute their fair share of taxes, voters did not move their dials up in key parts of the narrative on the state of the country.

  • Job creation: President Obama highlighted job creation over the last two years –progress many Americans have yet to feel.  Voters responded negatively to this section of the speech and highlighted it as a negative in our post-speech focus groups.
  • Fairness: The President called this the “defining issue of our time.”  While voters support many of the policies he recommended to restore fairness (the Buffett rule, for example), this was not his strongest framework or entry point to those policies.
  • America is back: At the conclusion of the speech, President Obama argued that “America is back” and that “Anyone who tells you otherwise…doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”  This section of the speech did not resonate for our voters in Denver and produced negative responses among Republicans and independents.

Many individual proposals were well received:

On the whole, the most far-sighted and foundational ideas had the broadest appeal for these Denver voters:

  • Energy: Voters reacted positively to President Obama’s call for an “all-out, all-of-the-above” energy strategy.  They appreciated his proposal to build a new energy economy that would create jobs, cut costs, and improve the environment while making the United States independent of foreign energy sources, and reacted particularly strongly to his proposal to shift tax subsidies from oil and other traditional sources to clean energy.
  • Education: The President’s sections on education hit high notes across the board.  Rewarding good teachers (while making it easier to remove bad ones), improving the quality of schools, and reducing the cost of higher education were popular among all voters.  Independents and Democrats also approved of his proposal to create new standards for student retention.
  • “Buffett Rule”: The President’s proposals for tax reform to benefit the middle class received high and sustained support across all groups.
  • InsourcingThe dials jumped when the President proposed a strategy to “insource” jobs. Voters appreciated the President’s call to end tax breaks for companies that move jobs overseas and they applauded his emphasis on a new kind of corporate patriotism.
  • Job training: These Denver voters appreciated the President’s approach to training workers for 21st century jobs.  They strongly supported his idea to expand public-private partnerships to train workers and agreed with his plan to move workers from “unemployment” to “reemployment.”
  • Corporate accountability: These voters, however, worry that none of the above matters unless Washington has the courage to tackle real reform in Washington and on Wall Street.
  • Washington is broken: Some of the strongest responses came when the President acknowledged that “Nothing will get done this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that, because Washington is broken.” The dials spiked again when Obama highlighted “the corrosive influence of money in politics.”  For many voters in Denver, this seemed to be the real point.  While they worry that nothing will be accomplished until this problem is solved, they appreciated the President’s spotlight on what they believe is the real problem.


President Obama generated a strong response to his energy proposals.  In our post-speech survey, Obama gained 22 points on the issue, one of his biggest gains of the evening.  These voters endorsed his appeal to end subsidies for oil companies and instead focus those resources on expanding clean energy and creating green jobs in America.  This section received some of the highest sustained ratings of the speech from Democrats and independents.

While Republicans did not respond as favorably, Democrats and independents showed strong approval for the President’s proposal to end oil subsidies. Among both groups, dials rose when the President said: We have subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough. It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that’s rarely been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that’s never been more promising. Pass clean energy tax credits and create these jobs.” While Republicans did not respond as favorably, all groups rose in response to the President’s call for an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy – a strategy that’s cleaner, cheaper, and full of new jobs.” The potential for the energy sector to create jobs resonated most with these voters.  One Democrat said, “Another area…that I think has so much potential for jobs and for the country is alternative energy. And those jobs are good jobs, local jobs.” Another emphasized the potential for broader economic development: “Alternative energy…that’s huge. That’s a huge area that, of growth and development that hasn’t been over-tapped.” Other participants noted the national security and foreign policy benefits of investing in green energy:  “I think clean energy can go a long ways. I mean it’s something we have to have, that’s how we became prosperous it’s because we were able to harness energy and we demand a lot of it. And if we didn’t have to worry about foreign countries and bringing in the oil I think that would make us a lot safer.”


These swing voters in Denver, across the political spectrum, responded positively to the President’s section on education.  He touched a chord with his offer to give schools the resources and flexibility they need to “to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test.” Across the board, the dials climbed to 80. These voters responded well to the proposal to keep student loan rates low.  One Republican noted the President’s emphasis on the high cost of education and appreciated his focus on the issue because Tuition is outrageous…and making education more affordable, because it’s really a business, and everyone is in debt, student loan debt.” A Democratic-leaning participant believed it was fundamental to the future: “I don’t think that you can maintain the change without creating the under, without creating the foundation based on education so that everybody has an opportunity. Without education you don’t have opportunity.” The section on job training was also well-received.  The President also drew positive reviews, particularly with independents, for his plan to turn community colleges into “community career centers” and on his proposal to encourage public-private partnerships to train workers for the jobs they need and for which they are needed.  A Republican-leaning participant thought this was a critical point, saying, I think he made a good point with having a lot of these jobs and not enough qualified people that take these positions necessarily. And so, that could translate into having a more educated workforce, obviously a stronger country.”

Prioritizing jobs and rewarding responsibility and accountability

The President touched on several key economic policy changes, most of which would be implemented through changes to the tax code – to discourage outsourcing, encourage job training, and ensure that the very wealthiest individuals and corporations cannot escape taxation. The dials spiked when the President made his strong populist pitch for the “Buffett Rule,” with Democrats exceeding 80 on our 0-to-100 scale and both independents and Republicans moving above 70 when he emphasized that middle class taxes should not go up.

There was no polarization here, as voters across the political spectrum gave Obama high marks. One Democratic-leaning respondent noted that the middle class spends most of the money in the economy and said, “I agree with him wholeheartedly about the tax reform he’s proposing…[most people] you know, living on, you know, less than $250 thousand, and a lot of us a whole lot less than $250 thousand.” The President’s proposal to reform the tax system to discourage outsourcing received strong and widespread approval. One swing voter said, “I would say his whole tax strategy on funding this country, I do strongly agree with…whether it’s to…to start taxing people if they outsource jobs, or give them tax breaks for bringing jobs back.”  

Washington is broken

Some of the strongest responses of the night came when the President honed in on what is to many voters the most foundational issue: Washington is broken.  Voters are concerned that the economy cannot be restored for ordinary Americans as long as the power of big money rules Washington.  Dials climbed in unison when the President acknowledged that people watching tonight have differing views about taxes and debt; energy and health care. But no matter what party they belong to, I bet most Americans are thinking the same thing right now: Nothing will get done this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that, because Washington is broken.” By the time he finished the statement, the dials of our Republican-leaning participants were slightly higher than those of Democrats and independents.   As one swing voter lamented, “We’re just in this stalemate and I think that the Republicans and Democrats alike in the United States are just sick of it. I mean we’re sick of just the fighting, the politics of ‘no.'” But as our participants told us, the inability of the two parties to work together is more of a symptom than a cause.

Among Democrats and independents, the dials rose even higher when the President honed in on the fundamental problem of money in politics.  The dials of the Democratic-leaning respondents neared 90 and independents near 80 when the President said, “I’ve talked tonight about the deficit of trust between Main Street and Wall Street. But the divide between this city and the rest of the country is at least as bad — and it seems to get worse every year. Some of this has to do with the corrosive influence of money in politics. So together, let’s take some steps to fix that.”

To many, the corrupting influence of money in politics is the most fundamental problem.  As one Democratic-leaning voter told us, I do think that’s the most important issue. There’s this sense of despair that I feel, at least amongst people I know. Somehow we used to think: we work hard and we organize and go out and we try to get votes. And it’s just when two-thirds of the money to elect a senator from Colorado comes from outside Colorado, we’re not even deciding on who our representatives are anymore.” Following the speech, another Democratic-leaning voter worried that corruption and greed on Washington and Wall Street would turn the United States into Greece.  “I think people are becoming more and more aware [of corruption,] you know we see it in…less developed nations that ‘wow Greece can’t pay their taxes because they have a corrupt system.’ That the wealthy business owners don’t have to pay their taxes because they’re wealthy and they have friends in the tax collection offices.” Yet another connected the problem of money in politics to lack of accountability in both Washington and Wall Street“So you bankrupt a lot of people and a lot of banks, so here’s your 5 million dollar bonus for this year, good job. You know, that just makes me crazy.  And he’s like, let’s hold people accountable, you know, hold people to the same standard regardless of what, you know, how much money they make, they should be held equally accountable as anybody else.”

Faltering on the economic narrative

While voters appreciated the President’s emphasis on specific policies outlined above, three elements of the President’s emerging economic narrative are much weaker than other frameworks he has used and that we have tested.  First, highlighting positive job growth – progress many Americans have yet to feel – engendered a dip in the dials and in our post-speech focus groups the reaction was overwhelmingly negative.  Second, the President’s “fair share” framework largely stagnated in the dials and produced only an uncertain response from voters.  Finally, Obama’s claim that “America is back” caused the dials to fall completely flat across all groups.

“More than three million jobs”

The President’s emphasis on positive job growth numbers largely fell flat.  The identification with the job growth at this point may not yet gel with voters’ experience in the real economy.

In our follow-up focus groups, participants reacted negatively to this part of the speech.  A Democratic-leaning participant doubted the quality of the jobs we are creating: “Just pouring sugar on the thing to create a few temporary jobs is going to get us no place.” Many told us that these numbers were meaningless to them because they had not felt the effects.  One Republican-leaning participant was incredulous: “I don’t see the kind of jobs numbers that I hear about from him.” Another Republican-leaning participant said he had not experienced job growth.  “All those jobs he talks about, all the rebound they talk about and all that, personally I don’t see that just from my circle of acquaintances.” Another noted, “With my friends who I’m close with and family I haven’t really seen it see it. I still know a lot of people that are kind of struggling to find work.”

“Restoring an economy where everyone gets a fair shot”

President Obama framed his vision for the economy in several ways throughout the speech and many were well-received.  One of the frameworks emphasized restoring an economy where everyone gets a fair shot – and the response was mute, even though the President said this is “the defining issue of our time.”  He said:

Dials remained flat throughout the section with independents and Republicans dropping slightly. The final sentence (“Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules”) produced a very modest average 7-point rise in the dials.  The same voters who dialed up when he spoke about protecting the the middle class against taxes and asking the top earners to pay more, reacted only modestly positively to “fairness” as the goal.

“America is back”

The President’s assertion that “America is back” produced an overall flat response across the dials with independents and Republicans responding negatively when the President claimed “America is back.  Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” This section came toward the end of the speech.  While the foreign policy section that preceded this produced overall positive responses, our audience in Denver was much less receptive to the claim that “America is back.”  For many Americans, it does not feel as though America’s position in the world has been restored.  The Democrats in our group edged up slightly to a lackluster average of 65 on the dial meter while independents dropped to 55 and Republicans remained flat at neutral.

Delivering on promises

For these swing voters in Denver, perhaps the biggest disappointment in the State of the Union was not anything the President did or did not say, but their lack of faith that Washington’s broken politics will allow any of this to happen. Many voters remain deeply skeptical and woefully cynical about the President’s ability to get things done in Washington. His speech did not change their minds.

As one Democratic-leaning voter told us, I’ve just lost faith in government in general. I don’t really see a lot of what he said actually brought to fruition.” The context here is important – after a year of gridlock, partisan breakdown, and failed negotiations, voters are skeptical that the President will be able to put any of his ideas into action.

Despite their largely positive response to many of the plans outlined in the State of the Union speech, many of these swing voters doubted the President’s ability to deliver. This sentiment was expressed across party lines, with Republicans more concerned that the President’s words do not match his deeds and the Democrats worried that Republicans in Congress are intent on blocking his agenda.  One Republican-leaning participant said, “He gives a great speech and I agree with what he says, but I don’t turn the dial up because I know it’s not gonna happen.” Another said more hopefully, “He’s…putting it out in front of the American people that, hey, we gotta get this done, so maybe that will help a little bit. Because whether you lean Democratic or Republican, they never get anything done when they keep on fighting like that.” Echoing that thought, two Democratic-leaning participants noted, “It’s a lot of great sounding stuff but most of it’s not going to happen.” And, “It’s fantastic. If even half of it came to pass I’d be elated, but I don’t think in the long run it’s going to happen.” This will indeed be the challenge for the President in 2012, but many remain hopeful.  Even this Republican-leaning voter in Denver noted at the end of the speech: “I liked that he kept asking the question about the bipartisanship, and I think he’s gonna do a better job of trying to get things done, of making it work together a little bit better.”

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