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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.

By DCDecoder / January 24, 2012

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address at the Capitol in Washington in January 2011.

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)



President Obama is offering his fourth third (the first address a new president gives isn’t titled the “state of the union”) - 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’re guessing the answer is “strong”), 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.

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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 “while some of those close to me have urged me to take the easy way, I have opted for…” 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 “take the easy way, Mr. President.”

Obama, McConnell advised, should “avoid strawmen… If you’re contradicting a counter argument, make it a real counter argument.”

Bob Lehrman, a former writer for Vice President Al Gore, concurred.

“Whenever you see somebody say - and Obama does this, I’m sorry to say - “some may say,” they’re heading straight for a straw man, Lehrman said. “You 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.”

Indeed, one of the best things Obama could do “is agree with the other side,” Lehrman said. “People will say ‘He’s a reasonable person.’”

2. Big themes, but many ideas.

President Obama isn’t just laying out his plans for the next year, pointed out Vinca LaFleur, a former writer for President Bill Clinton. He’s giving a taste of what a second Obama term would look like. That’s 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’s 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 “avoid a hectoring, lecturing tone this evening and perhaps extend the olive branch one more time.”

“The American people have kind of had it with the fighting that’s 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,” she said.


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