‘The State of the Union address is a ghastly event,” Peter Robinson, a former Reagan speechwriter, tells me. “The only people who get a little bit out of it are political journalists,” a parasitic class of persons who “only this Tuesday get to show up and talk on camera on prime time,” as they comment on the president’s words and the audience’s facial expressions. It’s an open secret, Robinson says, that everybody else hates it.
The SOTU as we have come to know it — half pep rally, half national psychodrama, an hour-plus of standing ovations punctuated by pieties, economics-by-anecdote, and the Lenny Skutnik du jour — is actually comparatively new, with little basis in the law. Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution says that the president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend” sundry measures. Until Woodrow Wilson devoted his presidency to expanding the powers of the executive, the SOTU was delivered as a plain and short letter to Congress. But, lamentably, returning to an originalist SOTU, as Robinson would like, is infinitely unlikely. So here are some plausible options for Obama:
1. Move right: “If he doesn’t, he self-immolates,” warns Clark Judge, another former Reagan speechwriter, now with the White House Writers Group. There’s no escaping the fact that the midterm elections of 2010 were “a rejection of rare magnitude.” Americans had spent 2008 intoxicated by Obama’s person and story, but his legislative agenda induced a hangover, restoring their latent conservatism. Facing that reality, Obama must now decide, as Robinson puts it, “whether he wants to be a man of the Left and place the second term in jeopardy, or whether he wants what most presidents have wanted — that is, a second term.”
Obama could take pages from Bill Clinton’s speech in 1995. The potential parallels are uncanny. Flanked by the new House speaker, Newt Gingrich, Clinton began in conciliatory and self-deprecating fashion: “Once again, our democracy has spoken . . . so let me congratulate you, Mr. Speaker . . . The American people certainly voted for change in 1992 and in 1994.” In 1996 Clinton endorsed the Reagan revolution in the most famous SOTU line in recent history (“The era of big government is over”) and then won reelection. Copying Clinton’s triangulation, Judge says, “would be good for the country, and good for Obama strategically.”
2. Or not. As Robinson puts it: “Nobody can answer that question [of what he wants] but Barack Obama.” If he really wants to, Robinson explains, Obama could, even without the House, spend the next two years sending the country leftward using his power over the regulatory agencies, “which is huge in the modern administrative state.” If he wishes to do that, he needs to be assertive and “raise the temperature” in his SOTU to “give heart to his base” — as long as he’s willing to alienate the broader public and accept a single term. Judge, though advising Obama to go the other way, admits that the SOTU has become so important because it is the best way for presidents to speak directly to the public in order to “launch their legislative agenda, as an attempt to reclaim some of the initiative in debate.” If Obama wants to keep moving America leftward, he could imitate FDR’s 1942 State of the Union, and propose a variation on the famous “Four Freedoms.”
Such a left-wing SOTU, however, looks highly improbable. Chriss Winston, a former George H. W. Bush speechwriter, notes that Obama “appears by the rhetoric of the last several weeks to be edging toward the center,” particularly as evidenced by his recent Wall Street Journal article. Judge believes that article uses Obama’s most insidious tactic: using centrist or even conservative rhetoric, and then promoting bigger government at the end.
3. Talk economics — and little else. The most difficult thing about a State of the Union address, says Winston, is that the president can’t choose his audience. He’s speaking to “everybody, every single group, at once,” including the international community. He needs to address a universal concern. And right now, that’s the economy.
Curiously, although pundits attributed the Democrats’ 2008 victories to voters’ weariness with the war on terror, Obama has in practice found it necessary to adopt the national-security tactics he reviled most vociferously when the Bush administration used them. And despite the widespread belief that young voters took to Obama out of an allergy to social conservatism, Obama has disappointed — and sometimes enraged — social liberals. In his SOTU Obama will want to avoid these topics. Civil libertarians, anti-war activists, and social liberals are sensitive to how his policies have diverged from the expectations they had on election night 2008.
4. Forget the past. A normal State of the Union speech at this point in a presidency would look backward and forward, highlighting the administration’s accomplishments and its future plans. However, the major legislation associated with Obama’s presidency, Winston notes, is wildly unpopular; it would be unwise for him to call attention to his time in office thus far.
5. Roll it back. “Every president since Reagan has tried to hit the same homeruns he hit,” Judge says. “The person in the gallery, the melodrama, all of that. There is now a sense that that has been overdone. There wasn’t a person in the gallery [a Lenny Skutnik] last time.” All of that spectacle, Judge advises, has become cloying and now ought to be cut. The length should be kept down too. Winston recalls what the speechwriting process looks like from the inside: “Every single secretary calls you up and says ‘Can you get just one line in about our program?’ It quickly adds up.” POTUS should remember that SOTU is for Congress and the public, not for his own administration.
6. And finally, don’t sweat it: “Most State of the Unions are not memorable. They rarely change anything. Do you remember anything from Obama’s last two speeches?” Winston asks rhetorically.
The same will go for Paul Ryan. Though many conservative policy wonks were excited by the January 20 announcement that Representative Ryan will give the Republican reply, he will have to work even harder to make his words stick.
The identities of the Republican responders during the Obama administration trace the GOP’s successive counter-strategies to the president. In 2009, Obama was associated less with particular legislation than with narratives: the stories of his life and of a nation atoning for its racial sins in the election of a black president. So Republicans chose Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana as one whose life story was equally only-in-America (and, a cynic might add, who was also a racial minority) to give a response that was mostly autobiography. That was the theory. In practice Jindal’s speech was generally considered a disaster.
In 2010, after one year of the Obama administration, the GOP chose an attractive icon of the new opposition to the president’s agenda: Bob McDonnell had ridden the first wave of Tea Party enthusiasm into the Virginia governor’s mansion. His speech announced the turning of the tide.
This year, with the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan, Republicans seem to be signaling that, post-midterms, they have the power and momentum to lay out their own agenda — in Ryanesque, wonkish detail. But all the speechwriters I talked to expressed concern over whether Representative Ryan will manage to connect with the people. He knows his stuff, they say. But can he lift with lofty rhetoric, or make his economic sense make sense outside the Beltway (not to mention the fact that most people turn off their TVs after the SOTU itself)?
Chriss Winston observed that the Left has a built-in rhetorical advantage, one noted long ago by Frédéric Bastiat in his essay on “What Is Seen and What Is Unseen.” Leftists can literally point to the direct beneficiaries of welfare programs, public projects, etc. But the benefits of the free-market reforms are widely distributed, hence less visible, hence more difficult to communicate. “So,” Winston laments, “Republicans’ speeches” — which, generally, do not propose new government programs — “are never seen as successful by the media.” They have limited heroic appeal.
How to overcome that? Paul Ryan should try to find a visual way to represent the advantages of conservative economic policy. Winston points to Reagan’s 1988 SOTU. He began the speech with a three-foot-high stack of papers beside his lectern; midway through, the aging president lifted individual bundles from the stack, noting the massive thickness and weight of the continuing resolution and budget report Congress had sent him. Clark Judge calls Bob Dole’s 1994 response, which included a graphic, spaghetti-like representation of the labyrinthine structure of Hillarycare, the only time a SOTU was “upstaged by a reply.”
“We never overcame the chart,” was Hillary’s famous epitaph for her namesake health-care plan.
We’ll see if Representative Ryan can find such a memorable visual aid to counter Obama — or if the president will save him the work by, like Clinton in 1995 and 1996, accepting America’s center-right orientation, reaffirming the Reagan revolution, and giving himself a second term by giving up his first-term agenda.
— Matthew Shaffer is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.