Obama’s SOTU Audience Continues to Shrink; Smaller Than Bush’s and Clinton’s Three Years In

By Patrick Goodenough | January 26, 2012 | 4:46 AM EST

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)

(CNSNews.com) – President Obama has attracted an increasingly smaller U.S. television audience to each year’s State of the Union address, with the estimated 37.75 million people who watched his speech on Tuesday not much bigger than President Bush’s smallest SOTU audience – 37.51 million in his final year in office.

According to Nielsen Media Research, an estimated 37,752,613 million watched Obama’s address on Capitol Hill on one of the 14 networks airing it, which included ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, CNN, CNBC and MSNBC.

The figure continues a trend of diminishing audiences. Obama’s 2009 speech to Congress – not officially a State of the Union since he had only taken office days earlier – drew a television audience of 52,373,000, according to Nielsen.

In 2010, his State of the Union (SOTU) attracted 48,009,595 viewers and by 2011 the number had dropped to 42,789,947.

(Obama’s announcement last May about the killing of Osama bin Laden, televised live, attracted 56.5 million viewers across nine networks, according to Nielsen data – bigger than any of his four January speeches on Capitol Hill.)

Compared to his two predecessors at the same point in their presidencies, Obama’s 37.7 million SOTU audience was smaller than Bush’s 43.4 million in 2006 and President Clinton’s 40.9 million in 1996. (see graph )

Bush’s TV audience jumped significantly between his 2001 speech to Congress (39.8 million) and the post-9/11 SOTU the following January (51.7 million). It then climbed further to 62 million in 2003 – weeks before the invasion of Iraq began – then declined in 2004 and 2005, picked up again in 2006 and 2007, before dropping to the low of 37.5 million in 2008, his valedictory SOTU.

Clinton accounted for both the largest and smallest viewerships of the last three presidents – a high of 66.9 million in 1993 (also not officially a SOTU) to a low of 31.5 million in 2000, his last year in office.

Between those highs and lows, Clinton’s audiences gradually declined between 1994 and 1996, but grew again in 1997 and jumped significantly in 1998 – when the SOTU came one day after the president during a nationally-televised press conference denied having “sexual relations” with White House intern Monica Lewinsky – before dropping off again in 1999 and 2000.

Despite the fluctuating SOTU television viewerships for all three presidents, when taken as averages their audience numbers are strikingly similar.

The average TV audience for Obama’s three speeches from 2009 to 2012 was 45.23 million; the average television viewership for Bush’s eight speeches from 2001 to 2008 was 45.01 million; and the average TV viewership for Clinton’s eight speeches between 1993 and 2000 was 45.62 million.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow