So how was the president on Tuesday night? Most observers forget, but the State of the Union address is typically the best speech President Bush gives in any year. The format of the large set address is ideal for Bush; it masks the flaws that he usually shows during press conferences, media interviews and more mundane speeches.
When it comes to the pure mechanics of speechmaking, Bush continues to improve every year in office (regardless of your feelings about his political abilities). Bush now thoroughly knows his way around a Teleprompter. He moves his head well, pauses sufficiently, and does not rush. Bush finally shows a full range of facial expressions. His reading is more natural and the squints and smirks are staying hidden. He practiced and it showed — in a good way.
Bush projected comfort and ease throughout. He clearly relishes the backslapping and handshaking leading up to the speech. And he lingered about long enough afterward to project the idea that he doesn’t feel besieged or in enemy territory. He still can’t get a dimple in his tie the way Reagan always did and all of the network anchors do, but Bush’s visual appearance was on par with Clinton’s (who also can’t put a dimple in a tie).
Fantastic improvement! Bush went for entire ten minute stretches without stumbling on a single syllable. And when he did stumble, the mistakes were insignificant. Bush makes more blunders in grammar and mispronunciation in a typical 60-second answer to a reporter than he did in his entire speech. Another huge area of improvement for Bush:
When he successfully pronounced the name of a foreign country or leader, he didn’t say it with the tone that suggested he was proud of it. Instead, he just spoke as if he really knew his stuff and was comfortable with all of the material, just as a leader should.
The speech lacked major themes. But then again, speech experts like me always chide presidents for not having thematic State of the Union speeches, but the public doesn’t care. However, I still take marks off for poor organization. Bush tacked all of his heartwarming stories involving people in the gallery until the final couple of minutes of the speech. He failed to connect their personal stories to any major message points, so the audience was left thinking, “That’s nice, but what does this person have to do with anything?”
President Bush was positively bipartisan in the gracious kisses he blew to speaker Nancy Pelosi. Bush has had a tendency to sound petulant during debates and press conferences, but not during the State of the Union. He maintained a positive tone throughout.
Yes, the president gave a spirited defense for the war in Iraq, but much of his speech was a laundry list of pet issues like ending earmarks and endorsing a tax-cut plan to give poor people health care insurance (that will never see the light of day). When President Bush talked about his strong desire for a balanced budget it was easy to imagine thought bubbles over liberal Democrats’ heads filled with loud inner laughter only to be punctured by the thought bubbles over conservative Republicans’ head filled with curses and sputtering.
On the day of the big speech, President Bush was in a tight spot. Major national polls showed his support levels nearly as low as Richard Nixon’s only days before resigning in 1974. State of the Union addresses are always a great place for presidents to remind people that they are not the caricatures their enemies paint them to be, but in the twilight of a presidency, this positive affect can be minimal. However, Bush did such a good job on delivering his speech and hitting so many issues of importance to a wide swath of Americans that I predict he will see a nice bump in the polls, possibly 6-10 points. But will that bump be sustained one week later if there are headlines of major fatalities in Iraq? Doubtful.