Five things to watch for in Obama's State of the Union
Former White House speech writers offer pointers to watching President Obama's State of the Union Tuesday night.
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
President Obama is offering his fourth third (the first address a new president gives isn‚Äôt titled the ‚Äústate of the union‚ÄĚ) - and, he hopes, not final - State of of the Union address to the nation Tuesday night. Ahead of the annual report on the state of the US (spoiler: We‚Äôre guessing the answer is ‚Äústrong‚ÄĚ), Decoder dropped by the Bipartisan Policy Center for a talk with four former White House speechwriters to get their thoughts on what to look for tonight.
Here are their five things to watch.
1. Burn the straw men.
John McConnell, a writer for President George W. Bush, told a story related to him by the late great speechwriter Bill Safire, who could not get Richard Nixon to stop saying some variation of ‚Äúwhile some of those close to me have urged me to take the easy way, I have opted for‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ before continuing on to what he wanted to do.
Unfortunately, Safire noted, nobody was advising the president to take the easy way. As such, Safire would sometimes walk past the closed door to the Oval Office and whisper ‚Äútake the easy way, Mr. President.‚ÄĚ
Obama, McConnell advised, should ‚Äúavoid strawmen‚Ä¶ If you‚Äôre contradicting a counter argument, make it a real counter argument.‚ÄĚ
Bob Lehrman, a former writer for Vice President Al Gore, concurred.
‚ÄúWhenever you see somebody say - and Obama does this, I‚Äôm sorry to say - ‚Äúsome may say,‚ÄĚ they‚Äôre heading straight for a straw man, Lehrman said. ‚ÄúYou can find real people on the other side and you can rebut what they say and you are much more credible when you do it.‚ÄĚ
Indeed, one of the best things Obama could do ‚Äúis agree with the other side,‚ÄĚ Lehrman said. ‚ÄúPeople will say ‚ÄėHe‚Äôs a reasonable person.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
2. Big themes, but many ideas.
President Obama isn‚Äôt just laying out his plans for the next year, pointed out Vinca LaFleur, a former writer for President Bill Clinton. He‚Äôs giving a taste of what a second Obama term would look like. That‚Äôs going to mean the standard presidential laundry list of proposals - but Obama needs to find broad themes and narratives to encapsulate the policy to make it relateable. Particularly given the President‚Äôs election/political goals, making the State of the Union - always a political document - into something approaching a nationally-televised campaign speech.¬†
3. Watch your tone.
Chriss Winston, the former chief speechwriter to President George H. W. Bush, said Obama would be well-served to ‚Äúavoid a hectoring, lecturing tone this evening and perhaps extend the olive branch one more time.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThe American people have kind of had it with the fighting that‚Äôs gone on between the White House and Congress. I would hope that tonight the speech will be President Obama laying out his vision but doing it in a way that allows for the possibility of some progress, at least this spring,‚ÄĚ she said.
Lehrman assented, saying research has shown as much as 30 to 40 percent of the legislative requests laid out in a president‚Äôs state of the union address get passed in the next year, even with divided government. Whatever the current state of affairs between the White House and Capitol Hill, watch how Obama talks to Congress to see if he thinks 30 to 40 percent is possible - or, on the other hand, worth achieving.
4. Quote Kansas.
No, Obama shouldn‚Äôt be humming Carry on My Wayward Son. But savvy viewers would be wise to look back at the President‚Äôs speech in Osawatomie, Kan. in December (full text here.) At the core of that speech was this line:
"I‚Äôm here to reaffirm my deep conviction that we are greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, and when everyone plays by the same rules. Those aren‚Äôt Democratic or Republican values; 1% values or 99% values. They‚Äôre American values, and we have to reclaim them."
The themes of fairness and the middle class will likely be smack-dab in the middle of Obama‚Äôs state of the union - comparing what he says now to what he said in Osawatomie may help gauge where the president feels the electoral and political winds are blowing.
As McConnell wryly noted, Roosevelt ‚Äúmade that speech at the beginning of the only campaign he ever lost.‚ÄĚ
5. The rebuttal dance¬†
Mitch Daniels, the Indiana Governor tasked with giving the Republican rebuttal, is in a tight spot.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a balancing act,‚ÄĚ Lehrman said. ‚ÄúYou want to be conciliatory, you want to show respect for the office [of president], but you want to be concrete in the things you want to criticize. This is an economy speech, the emphasis is on jobs, and so the emphasis in the response should also be on jobs.‚ÄĚ
Winston argued that Republicans will find the 2012 election as part referendum on Obama‚Äôs policies, part choice between Obama and a Republican alternative. As such, the rebuttal should weigh critique of Obama with the GOP‚Äôs vision.
‚ÄúTalk about Obama‚Äôs record, criticize it if you will, but they have to offer a positive alternative,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúI would focus on the Republican version of the future.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄĒ David Grant
- Watch the State of the Union live online through the White House‚Äôs webstream for an ‚Äúenhanced‚ÄĚ feed - see the data and charts that helped inform the President‚Äôs policy proposals.