President Obama will give his second State of the Union address tonight. It’s his fourth speech to a joint session of Congress since taking office and the culmination of a months-long political re-branding of the president as a pro-business centrist. Power Play today offers some suggestions for the president, Rep. Paul Ryan, the audience in the House chamber and for viewers at home.
Do: Know What Kind of Speech You Are Giving
State of the Union addresses are notoriously hard to do well. As Peggy Noonan put it, they are “usually among the most important and least memorable of presidential speeches.”
States of the Union so often devolve into laundry lists of legislative initiatives and policy priorities as speechwriters make room for one thing after another.
You can almost hear them there in some cramped West Wing office saying, “But we have to say something about green jobs. Did you get something in on Iraq? How about the START treaty? Get that in there.”
It’s understandable that it would happen. Presidents are eager to highlight their own successes from the previous year and with such huge viewership, plumping ones accomplishments sounds like a pretty good idea.
This will likely be the largest audience Obama addresses this year -- other than his expected television appearance on Super Bowl Sunday, which will be little more than a public service announcement anyway.
Obama’s first State of the Union Speech drew 48 million viewers last year and Obama’s first address to a joint session of Congress in February of 2009 drew 52 million viewers. By contrast, Obama’s much-discussed speech at the memorial service for the victims of the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords drew 30 million viewers.
With that many eyeballs on the man, there is another impulse at work among presidential advisers: the desire to play it safe. Big flourishes, bold language and new initiatives all sound like trouble. And with Obama’s reelection bid underway, this would seem like a bad time to take a chance to his advisers.
As a result of dual desires to polish the presidential resume and not take any chances in front of a big crowd, Team Obama has likely recommended that the president give what would be a long, boring speech. But at the same time, we hear that Obama will discuss his vision for “winning the future.”
Democratic talking heads got their spin notes on Monday and were told to focus on “five pillars” of the Obama vision: innovation, education, infrastructure, tackling the national debt, and government reform.
But if Obama tries to give a safe, reelection-minded State of the Union address at the same time as a “five pillars” kind of vision speech, it will come out like techno pop played on a bass fiddle.
If Obama wants to do a big, bold vision speech, he should take a chance and do it. If he wants to play it safe by patting his own back a bit and calling for a few vague initiatives, he should do that. But he shouldn’t try a mash up or he’ll be neither safe nor inspiring.
Don’t: Overestimate Your Own Magnanimity
From the way members of Congress are talking about their decision to sit alongside colleagues from the other party instead of in partisan halves for tonight’s speech you’d think that they had just brokered a peace treaty between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The State of the Union in its current form is a relatively new tradition and is largely a function of the television age.
It was sent up to Congress in writing by every president from Thomas Jefferson to William Taft. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson made a speech, but presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover gave up the practice. Franklin Roosevelt revived the concept of a big speech, but it was an afternoon affair until 1965 when Lyndon Johnson pioneered the idea of a Prime Time address.
In the course of that 45 year history as a piece of national political theater, parties have made what was intended to be an accountability measure for the executive branch into a partisan free-for-all. Cheers, jeers, excited utterances (“You lie!”) and the impression of a house very much divided became part of the TV tradition
While many attribute the move by politicians to seek bipartisan seat buddies to the shooting in Arizona, it is also because the speech had become rather ugly and unpleasant. When the president called out the stone-faced (save Samuel Alito) justices of the Supreme Court in person and Democrats howled like Eagles fans pelting Santa Claus with snowballs it was kind of a low-water mark for the speech.
The new seating arrangements will be beneficial to the president, and, if it continues, his successors. It just looks better to speak to a unified house than a divided one. Plus, Obama will certainly offer lots of unobjectionable, patriotic lines to get bipartisan applause so the new seatmates can stand together.
So, members of Congress are going to class things up a bit this year. But just that makes them more adult, not a bunch of Menachem Begins and Anwar Sadats. Voters will not be overly impressed by seating arrangements, so lawmakers should be careful about congratulating themselves.
Do: Keep it Short
The constitutional purpose of a State of the Union speech is to bring Congress up to speed on the executive’s activities. The political purpose is to show Americans their leader in a grand setting talking about important things.
Neither purpose will be well served by a too-long speech.
In 2010, Obama went on for about an hour and 10 minutes. Too long. Granted, it wasn’t the mother of all SOTUs – Bill Clinton’s 90-minute song of himself in 2000 – but it lost some of its force as Obama went on.
There is a reason that college classes run 50 minutes. That’s about the maximum time that the human brain can absorb information in one sitting. Anything beyond that tends to run off in rhetorical rivulets.
If Obama follows the first Do on the list and chooses between either a laundry list or a vision statement, it will be easier to hold the time down. If Obama is concerned about getting everything on the record, he can do as Richard Nixon did and make brief remarks accompanied by a lengthy written document.
But, if Obama is looking for inspiration, he should remember that George Washington’s first such address in 1790 ran less than 1,100 words. Even allowing for applause and wig readjustment, that likely took less than 15 minutes. That’s not much time in which to cover a new Constitution, the creation of a regular army and the establishment of normal diplomatic relations with European powers.
Obama should seek to limit himself to a speech only three times longer than Washington’s.
Don’t: Buy the Hype
It will be tempting for political junkies to give in to the pundits and commentators who are squealing about history in the making and the speech as a pivot point for the Obama presidency.
First, State of the Union speeches have remarkably little staying power. Perhaps because of their purpose as catalogues of past activities or because they are poorly suited to risky rhetoric, most tend to fade away in a few days.
In Obama’s 2009 address to a joint session of Congress dealt with five areas of policy – stimulus, financial regulation, global warming, health care and education. It was a useful blueprint for following the first half of the president’s first two years, but the speech itself melted away like light snow on a poorly insulated roof.
So as pundits are Tweeting out their rhapsodies about the president’s speech, wait to draw your own conclusions. It would take something pretty big to break through to the annals of history.
Similarly, don’t buy in to the widely believed notion that the speech represents some kind of new thinking by the president.
As Power Players read on Monday, the president is expected to discuss plans for new spending on Democratic priorities like government jobs and road construction and propose cooperation with preferred businesses like General Electric. That wouldn’t be anything different than Obama has proposed throughout his 14-year political career. He may be emphasizing different elements, but he’s still talking about the same things.
The idea of a shift to center is something that the administration has been preparing the public and the press for since before the fall elections. This is the key moment in a public relations rollout, not a change in thinking.
Do: Check the Lighting
As hard as the job of the president is, the job of the member of the opposition party offering the rebuttal is even harder.
As Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., and then-Gov. Tim Kaine, D-Va., found out in recent years, being one lonesome guy in a dark room after the president commands the greatest stage in American politics looks dreadful.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell may have done better than anyone before with his rebuttal last year. He spoke from the statehouse in Richmond surrounded by friends and supporters. Instead of looking like a man suffocating in an airless room, McDonnell seemed like a vital political player.
He was also helped by the content of his message: cordial, appreciative but still defiant.
The head fiscal hawk of the GOP, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, is giving this year’s response from the House Budget Committee’s room not far from the House chamber.
Power Play would urge the congressman to ditch that plan and get back to his district right away. He would be far better received if he were seated in a Janesville, Wisc. coffee shop surrounded by constituents than he would be looking lonesome in a budget room all by himself.
But if Ryan is going to go it alone, he should make sure that the lights are on. Jindal and Kaine looked gloomy and like they were hunting their respective executive mansions. If Ryan goes for the green-eyeshade look, as if he is poring over potential budget cuts by the light of a banker’s lamp, he will look gloomy too.