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

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

Here are their five things to watch.

1. Burn the straw men.

Recommended: How much do you know about the State of the Union speeches? A quiz.

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.

Lehrman assented, saying research has shown as much as 30 to 40 percent of the legislative requests laid out in a president’s 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’t be humming Carry on My Wayward Son. But savvy viewers would be wise to look back at the President’s speech in Osawatomie, Kan. in December (full text here.) At the core of that speech was this line:

"I’m 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’t Democratic or Republican values; 1% values or 99% values. They’re 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’s 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.

Oh, and on one last note: Obama chose Osawatomie because Teddy Roosevelt delivered a rousing speech there in 1910 where he laid out his progressive philosophy, the “New Nationalism.”

As McConnell wryly noted, Roosevelt “made that speech at the beginning of the only campaign he ever lost.”

5. The rebuttal dance 

Mitch Daniels, the Indiana Governor tasked with giving the Republican rebuttal, is in a tight spot.

“It’s a balancing act,” Lehrman said. “You 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.”

Winston argued that Republicans will find the 2012 election as part referendum on Obama’s policies, part choice between Obama and a Republican alternative. As such, the rebuttal should weigh critique of Obama with the GOP’s vision.

“Talk about Obama’s record, criticize it if you will, but they have to offer a positive alternative,” she said. “I would focus on the Republican version of the future.”

David Grant

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