How Obama used the State of the Union to set the stage for the midterms

Taegan Goddard
The Week

In the latest episode of Political Wire's podcast, we chatted with Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster for the firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, about the political impact of President Obama's State of the Union address, the president's lukewarm poll numbers, and the Republican Party's brand challenges ahead of the midterm elections.

Here are five takeaways:

1. Obama's speech targeted women, especially unmarried women. Democrats need to turn them out in November: The president's speech clearly played to women, an important Democratic voting block. Obama not only devoted a chunk of his speech to equal pay for equal work. He also spent time talking about other pocketbook issues such as health care, job training and education. These issues are especially important to single women, who make less money and are less educated than women overall, Greenberg said. Single women vote strongly Democratic -- they backed Obama by a more than 2-to-1 margin in 2012 -- so Democrats need them to turn out big in November. "But there’s a big difference in whether they turn out in off-year elections," he said. They didn't seem to turn out in big numbers in Virginia's off-year gubernatorial election, Greenberg noted.

SEE ALSO: Who hates the GOP's immigration plan more: Democrats or Republicans?

2. Faster economic growth by itself only helps Obama's numbers a little bit: It's true that economic growth has sped up, having topped 3% for the second straight quarter. But the growth hasn't found its way to lower- and middle-class workers in the form of higher wages yet. Obama can't rely solely on economic growth numbers to help buoy his less-than-stellar approval ratings. In his SOTU speech, he needed to show Americans who are still struggling that he's still fighting for them. Focus groups that Greenberg conducted after the speech suggested that Obama took a step in the right direction on that front: "They thought he cared about them. They thought he had plans that were practical and maybe could get done."

3. The SOTU speech itself won't boost Obama's numbers for long, but could help set the agenda on his terms: Although presidents' polling numbers usually edge up after they give their SOTU address, the bounce doesn't last for long. Still, that may not be the speech's main impact, especially given the policies that Obama talked about. Pocketbook issues like the minimum wage, income inequality and education play well with middle-class voters. Talking about these issues in the SOTU could help them get on the 2014 political agenda, and if they get on the agenda, voters will hear about them a lot before the election. Democrats could benefit at the polls from a pocketbook-centric agenda. "That’s what the speech was. It was an agenda-setting speech."

SEE ALSO: Why are the uninsured turning against ObamaCare?

4. A pocketbook-focused agenda could be especially crucial for Democrats if Republicans can't settle on their own agenda: Democrats have remained united on most issues, the main exception being ObamaCare after the shaky rollout of the health insurance exchanges. Republicans, on the other hand, are in disarray. The party's brand has suffered immensely, as voters see Republicans as ideologically extreme and unwilling to compromise. The business-oriented establishment wing and the tea party movement are still squabbling, and some GOP politicians such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee continue to make comments that offend coveted voting groups, namely women and Hispanics. Huckabee's comments about women's libido are "just symptomatic of a Republican Party that can’t put a lid on who they are," Greenberg said. Add it all up, he said, and you have a Democratic Party that's trying to take care of business versus a Republican Party that can't take care of itself: "I’ll take that framework going forward into [the 2014 election]."

5. Republicans' agenda cannot consist of bashing ObamaCare: The health care reform law isn't polling well right now, as more Americans disapprove of the law than approve. But they also don't want Congress to repeal the law; a majority of Americans want Congress to keep ObamaCare and fix its flaws, polls say. It's true that Republicans recently devised an alternative to ObamaCare, and signs suggest that they're done trying to repeal it. Still, it's a risky move for them to keep focusing so much attention on it, Greenberg said. "The more the Republicans are talking about ObamaCare, the more they look like they are rigid, fighting old battles, not wanting to make progress."

SEE ALSO: Will Republicans raise the minimum wage? History says yes.

Listen to the whole conversation here:

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