Sunday, January 31, 2010

One More SOTU Post-Mortem: Watch the Words

A psychology professor friend of ours sent a fascinating linguistic analysis of the State of the Union from the folks at Word Watchers, a blog dedicated to tracking the language of public figures.  Here's the premise:
Over the last several years, multiple studies have found that the analysis of function words can reflect psychological dimensions of speakers.  Laboratory and real world studies indicate that pronouns and other style words predict a speaker’s honesty, social status, emotional state, social connections with others, dominance, and thinking style.  Function words are linked to people’s immediate psychological state within a given context and also can provide a broader view of their personality across situations and time.

SOU addresses are a perfect opportunity to study the psychological features of the nation’s leaders within relatively formal contexts.  Unlike most speeches, SOUs are generally given in the same location, to the same types of dignitaries, at the same time of the year.  Although the speeches themselves have undoubtedly been shaped by others, they continue to reflect the personality and thinking of the president and his staff.
The rest of the piece applies that lens to the post-WWII SOTU, starting with Truman and with special attention to Obama's latest.   More than worth checking out.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

One last SOTU Post-Mortem: Nick Morgan

Nick Morgan, a top corporate speechwriter and coach, offered a fairly in-depth rhetorical analysis of the State of the Union on his blog that honed in on Obama's tone.  "The speech was pugnacious, tried to settle a number of scores, and spent a lot more time justifying this new administration’s actions than it did painting a picture of the future.  In some ways, it was a post-modern political speech for a post-modern era, an era of irony, diminished expectations, and even sarcasm." You can read the rest of it here.

Friday, January 29, 2010

SOTU Post-Mortem: A Divided Speech for a Divided Nation

By Dan Gerstein
(Cross-posted from

Taking in the widely divergent reactions to and reviews of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address the day after, you might think those folks were listening to two different speeches. Well many of us were--in more ways than one. We're a deeply divided people with a bad habit of projecting our own biases and conflicting desires on our leaders and hearing what conforms to them. And Obama, seemingly reflecting his own internal tensions, responded in kind by delivering a profoundly contradictory address on almost all counts--structurally, thematically, tonally and substantively.

In that sense it was a particularly fitting speech for the moment--a perfect distillation of the state of our political union. But for that reason I suspect it was also the wrong speech for Obama (whose challenge is to change the status quo, not channel it) and, more important, for the American people (who, despite the mixed messages they may send, are looking for consistency and conviction from their president). I just don't see how the unity of purpose the president says he is seeking will come from the disunity of rhetoric he ended up offering to a fractured and unsettled polity.

I actually counted three distinct and disjointed speeches. The first was a lofty peroration that paid tribute to American resilience and deftly set the historical and political context for the speech. The second was a stirring culmination that challenged Washington to change its ways and reconnected Obama to his winning outsider campaign message. Sandwiched in the middle of those high points was a muddle of typical programmatic proposals and declarations: tactical bones meant to be thrown to the left, right and center and to check poll-tested boxes.

Early surveys show that some of these new prescriptions--including the economic centerpieces of the address--played well in isolation to the swing voters the White House needs to win back. But the key words there are "in isolation." I was struck by how disconnected the specific policies Obama discussed were--not only from the opening and close of the speech, but from one another. There was no overriding vision or narrative thread to hold these ideologically diverse ideas together and convince voters they are part of a larger coherent plan. Which is a significant reason why I think the new policy pieces had less immediate resonance than they might have--and why they will have little lasting value to the president.

We can already see early hints of this. A focus group of Nevada swing voters conducted by the left-leaning Democracy Corps liked what the president said on the economy, the deficit and banking reform. His ratings jumped 38 points on each from before the speech to after. But those shifters were still dubious about Obama's ability to deliver on those issues. Indeed, unlike most attributes that shifted during the speech, "promises things that sound good but won't be able get them done" remained very high (78% pre-speech to 74% after). The "shifters," the pollsters reported, are waiting for results. And while they see the Republicans as obstructing every Obama initiative, they nonetheless expect Democrats to pass major legislation with their large majorities.

For that to happen Obama will have to do more than reset his positioning and agenda, which he did with some success Wednesday night. He will have to reassert his powers of persuasion. Most immediately he must convince his own party to put aside its ideological disagreements and personal grievances to unite behind him. He must convince the reasonable wing of the Republican Party that he is serious about working with them on some big issues--the new math of the Senate and the growing electoral frustration that drove the election in Massachusetts demand it. And he must convince the broad middle that he can do more than talk a good game.

By that measure, Wednesday's dissonant speech was equal parts missed opportunity and confounding disappointment. Obama made several rhetorical and programmatic gestures of good will to Republicans. But whatever potential benefit he may have derived from those outstretched bipartisan hands was undermined and likely negated by the sharp partisan elbows he delivered with almost equal frequency. Not exactly the best way to put positive pressure on the "party of no" to act like the "party of go." The best evidence of that: the uniformly negative response by moderate GOPers and right-wingers alike. Many Democrats will say that's simply because the Republicans are intent on tearing down the president, and there's some truth to that. But Obama's partisan ping-ponging sure made it easy for them to play the victim and stay on the sidelines.

Much the same could be said for the schizophrenic tone of Obama's message to Congress as a whole. Obama made several seemingly genuine exhortations to hear the public's anger with Washington and rise above the usual politics to deal with the immense challenges of our time. But there seemed to be just as many instances of Obama hectoring and lecturing both his friends and foes in the room. Now most of us could hardly blame Obama for wanting to upbraid and call out this Congress for its incompetence and ineffectiveness. But given his depleted political capital, and the persuasion challenges he faces now, it's hard to see how he helped himself by using the carrots he was holding out to publicly slap his colleagues across the face.

There were a few other conflicting and confusing notes that I think added to the self-defeating score. The president insisted he was not walking away from health care. But it sure seemed that way, after he spent a negligible fraction of his speech talking about the issue that had consumed Washington for the past half year and refused to take a clear stand on what kind of bill he wants.

He said that a jobs bill was his top priority for the year. Yet he put far more passion in his calls for lobbying and earmark reform than he did in demanding Congress put a jobs plan on his desk (the weakest moment in the speech to me). The strongest parts of the speech were where Obama validated the public's frustration with the arrogance and politics as usual in Washington. Yet all his efforts to show humility and gain credibility--including the self-deprecating humor--rang hollow to many who could not get past all the self-referential and self-congratulatory parts of the speech.

The result? Obama produced more of a political Rorschach test than a game-changer. There were elements of a compelling speech that reminded many Obama supporters (myself included) why they fell for this phenomenal talent in the first place. My favorite was the section on global economic competitiveness and his emphatic assertion that he will "not accept second place for the United States of America." Those were the parts that many liberals chose to hear and cheer. Most conservatives fixated on the contradictions; my friend Pete Wehner, head of strategic planning at the White House under Karl Rove, called it one of the worst State of the Union addresses in modern times. And what of the volatile and valuable class of Independents? So far, based on early returns, the reviews seem as mixed and conflicted as the speech itself. They appear at best unmoved, at worst turned off.

That initial impression may prove wrong. Over time the cream of the speech may indeed rise to the top of the popular consciousness. But I tend to think that, to borrow from the words of another lanky Illinois senator, that a speech divided against itself cannot stand--and will not stick.

Gerstein is President of Gotham Ghostwriters and writes a weekly political column for

New Blog on Speaking Forums

Courtesy of VSOTD: Veteran executive communicator Ron McCall has launched a blog called All About Forums.  It's dedicated to helping speechwriters and their clients evaluate speaking opportunities. Every couple of weeks, McCall promises to provide "firsthand information about speaking opportunities…so you can make better decisions concerning your executives' speaking engagements."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

SOTU Post-Mortem: Obama's Big Gamble

By Robert George

Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson declares that Barack Obama has "lost his grip on reality."

On the contrary, this State of the Union was actually a rather reality-based speech. It's just that Obama decided to toss aside all the usual conventions for such speeches and decided to focus on a reality different than the one most journalists and commentators expected him to focus on.

Indeed, one could argue that this was even less of a "state of the union" than Obama's "Economic Address To the Nation" that took the place of the SOTU in his first year. Instead, this seemed more akin to a convention keynote address that makes stark divisions between party visions than an annual address that attempts to unite the country.

Note how the usual formulation of "the state of our union is [blank]" was truncated to "our union is strong." For a gifted speaker like Obama who tends to hew to traditional rhetorical convention, this departure was strange -- unless it was particularly designed to send a different message than usual.

indeed, the strangeness continued -- the evidence of which could be gleaned by what was included and excluded in the speech.

To go in reverse order, for the first time I believe since Reagan initiated the practice, there was no shout-out to the special guests in the president's box. The hero cops from the Ft. Hood shooting were reportedly up in the gallery, yet no explicit mention of them? Odd.

Odder still was the specific avoidance of specificity. By that, I mean the president made pointed reference to examples of companies and individuals helped by the stimulus -- but gave no names.

He mentioned a young boy who sent money to the
White House to help Haitian relief -- yet didn't identity him by name. It would be easy to sat that he omitted these specifics to deter fact-checkers, but in the Internet Age, that sort of scrutiny isn't going to be easily evaded. So, why leave out the names?

Meanwhile, what WAS in the speech? Sure, the usual listing of policy proposals, but a lengthy defense of decisions made and policies adopted last year made up the bulk of the first half of the address: The impact of the "Recovery Act", AKA "the stimulus," was the focus.

As such, this was one of the most overtly political SOTU speeches in some time. But perhaps this is actually where the country is -- that actually is the reality that Barack Obama sees.

And so, he has decided to double down on the political -- rather than economic or security -- reality of the moment.

Consider, one conservative last night declared that he was surprised that Obama displayed none of the contrition of
Bill Clinton's 1995 "the era of big government is over" SOTU. Another analyst made a similar point.

Huh!!! Really?

Losing Ted Kennedy's Senate seat is the political equivalent of losing both chambers of Congress -- including the Democratic House for the first time in 40 years! Conservatives really want to make that comparison? Obama appears to be making the bet that a president gets two years before the inevitable midterm correction delivered by the voters. To toss aside all plans now would be the mark of someone with absolutely NO backbone.

Which is why something Obama included in the speech was so off-putting (from a traditional SOTU perspective):
To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. So let’s show the American people that we can do it together.
I didn't have time to pour through all SOTUs given, but I can't remember when a POTUS explicitly reminded his side of the size of its majority and the other side the price that comes with asserting that 60 votes are necessary for passage of major bills.

He was, at that moment warning that Democrats risked being labeled cowards and Republicans obstructionists if his agenda wasn't pushed through. Was that serious ass-covering ("If this all falls apart, it's your fault, not mine!")? Maybe, but it's not a completely unfair reading of the current political reality.

Ronald Reagan got his tax cuts through a Democratic House and GOP Senate. George W. Bush -- after losing the popular vote in 2000 -- got tax cuts and No Child Left Behind through a split Senate. Even after the Jeffords flip gave Democrats the majority, the hated-by-Dems Ted Olson was approved as Bush's solicitor general.

The point here is that with much smaller margins, Republican presidents get things done -- usually because Republicans support the individual in the White House.

Unfair or not, Barack Obama is daring Democrats to walk away from him on health care -- now that each chamber has passed a bill. A party legislative dream of decades is tantalizingly close. November may prove that Massachusetts was the warning sign that Republicans and many independents believe it to be. But Obama has put down the gauntlet to declare that he deserves to have half his first term play out before the post-mortems of his presidency are carved in stone -- regardless of how unpopular health care is at this moment.

In short, Obama is faced with the perpetual tug in politics -- does an elected leader stick to the inner compass or does he follow what the polls (and one special election) tell him?

Obama seems willing to bet his congressional majority on the former. That's why this was a give-no-inch political speech.

That's not to say that there weren't areas in which he still managed to leave himself vulnerable. While he -- in his own fashion -- went after the economic fears bedeviling the country, he ignored the advice of one blogging pundit who suggested hours before the speech that he make an aggressive rhetorical move to speak to terrorism concerns. Obama's mild reference to the Christmas bomber may be an underselling that could well come back to haunt him.

But in the larger picture, we'll see, come November, if the overall bet Barack Obama made Wednesday night was a smart or stunningly stupid one. In the interim, it's going to be bumpy ride, because Obama declared the state of our politics to be fractious and harsh -- and
he's willing to declare it a war zone. 
George is an editorial writer at the New York Post and a former Capitol Hill speechwriter

SOTU Post-Mortem Round-Up

If you have not yet gotten your fix of SOTU analysis, here is a sampling of day-after commentary from around the Web that we thought worth sharing:
  • Ace Washington Post political report Dan Balz writes that judging Obama's speech requires two measuring sticks. 
  • The Post also has short-takes from a number of pundits and speechwriters.
  • Democracy Corps finds that much of Obama's economic message resonated with the swing voters it focus-grouped in Nevada.
  • DLC President Bruce Reed praises Obama's calm and calls governing "the best revenge."
  • Pete Wehner, a senior advisor in the Bush White House, bemoans what he calls a "self-referential State of the Union."
  • Jonathan Chait of the New Republic calls the speech "dull, cheap, and successful."

SOTU Post-Mortem: Thiessen (Part II)

By Marc Thiessen
(Cross-posted from The Corner at National Review)

The speech began with an elegant and elevated opening, but quickly descended into scolding and condescension.

He scolded the justices of the Supreme Court in front of their faces and led the entire Democratic side of the aisle into cheering his taunts. The justices sat there stone-faced (save Justice Alito, whose reaction probably betrayed what the rest were thinking).

He scolded Republicans for obstruction and declared “we can’t wage a perpetual campaign” — even as he continued, in his speech, his perpetual campaign against President Bush. The fact is, by this time in their presidencies, both of his predecessors had reached across the aisle to seek opposition support for a major initiative (Clinton on NAFTA, Bush on No Child Left Behind). Obama has not one single significant bipartisan initiative to speak of. He has tried to ram through his agenda along strict party-line votes. But the Republicans are obstructionist.

He scolded Scott Brown (without mentioning his name) and all those who have criticized his handling of the Christmas Day bomber, declaring that “all of us love this country” and warning critics to “put aside the schoolyard taunts about who is tough.” If you disagree with Obama’s policies, you are questioning his patriotism. Imagine what the reaction would have been if Bush had tried that in a State of the Union with those who criticized the surge in Iraq. The howls of the liberal media would have been deafening.

His one moment of “humility” came when he acknowledged his biggest mistake of the past year: his failure to adequately explain his policies to all of us. This was a State of the Union for the slow learners. His message to all of us was: “Let me speak slowly for you.”

It was quite possibly the most partisan, condescending State of the Union address ever. Tonight, Obama was unpresidential. The permanent campaign continues. In the long run, it will backfire.

SOTU Post-Mortem: Thiessen (Part I)

By Marc Thiessen
(Cross-posted from The Washington Post)

Listening to President Obama's speech, I could not help wondering how different this night would have been had Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's bomb not malfunctioned. Four weeks ago our country was the target of a catastrophic terrorist attack. But for the grace of God, Northwest Flight 253 would have crashed into downtown Detroit, killing thousands. Yet just a month later, it is an afterthought for this president. His only mention of the failed attack was a passing reference that he was responding with "better airline security."

Worse, the president's brief discussion of terrorism focused not on what he was doing to defend the country but was, rather, a vigorous defense of himself. His first words on the subject were a chastisement of those who would dare criticize his handling of terrorism, declaring that "all of us love this country" and warning his Republican critics to "put aside the schoolyard taunts about who is tough." It's all about him. No acknowledgement of how close we came to disaster or praise for the brave passengers who subdued the terrorist. No, only this message for his critics: If you question the wisdom of telling a captured terrorist "you have the right to remain silent," you are really questioning the president's patriotism and engaging in childish taunts.

The fact is, the American people have real concerns about Obama's approach to terrorism. They do question the wisdom of eliminating CIA interrogations, closing Guantanamo Bay, bringing the terrorists held there to this country, putting Khalid Shiekh Mohammed and his cohorts on trial in civilian courts, and giving captured terrorists Miranda rights after 50 minutes of questioning. Instead of acknowledging these concerns, Obama dismissed them. It was strange, defensive, arrogant -- and un-presidential.

Thiessen was lead writer of President George W. Bush's last two State of the Union Addresses; author of "Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack"

INTERVIEW: The Day After—Analysis of President Obama’s State of the Union Address

The stakes were high for this year’s State of the Union address. Vital Speeches asked Gotham Ghostwriters President Dan Gerstein, a veteran political speechwriter and strategist, about his thoughts on the big speech in a podcast interview today.

Listen to the podcast here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Response to State of the Union: Heather Hurlburt

By Heather Hurlburt

Before the speech, John Neffinger laid out here the impact that Barack Obama needed to have with his words.  But I'm reminded as I watch the speech that Obama's genius in this visual, sound-bite, 24-7 cable age, has always been to convey as much with his presence, his backstory, what he doesn't say as what he does.

And that's so true tonight.  I thought the opening was a bit academic, a bit of a slow start.  It's often his style to begin speeches as I imagine a law school lecture might be (I went for the 2-year master's myself).  That runs completely counter to my speechwriter training --make the first page or two flashy and then sneak in all the meat later.

But as he gathered steam, we had not just his delivery but Joe Biden behind him as a comic partner -- as someone on a listserv commented, telling the folks at home when to cheer and when to laugh.  He seemed to have made a careful study of how the TV cameras would put the Republicans on the spot -- and taken advantage of it.

As humbling as this is for a writer, Obama is someone -- my boss Bill Clinton was another, love him or hate him -- who brought entirely another dimension to what was written on the page.  That's our fate in this multi-media era.

Obama's Mission: Don't Duck the Discontent

By Marc Thiessen
(Cross-posted from Politico)

If our practice in the Bush administration is any guide, President Barack Obama and his speechwriters sat down in the Oval Office soon after Thanksgiving to map out the broad themes of his first State of the Union address. By the time the president left for his Christmas holiday, a detailed outline — possibly, even a first draft — accompanied him on Air Force One to Hawaii.

In the wake of the seismic events in Detroit and Boston that followed, whatever Obama’s speechwriters sent him has most likely been turned into mulch by the shredding truck that pulls up on West Executive Avenue each night. The attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day and the popular uprising in Massachusetts that propelled Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate have exposed the twin vulnerabilities of the Obama presidency — vulnerabilities Obama must address in his speech Wednesday.

First, Obama faces growing discontent over his handling of terrorist detainees. Americans in large numbers believe that we should still be employing the enhanced interrogation techniques he has banned, and they oppose his plans to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, bring terrorists to the United States and try men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian courts. These concerns have been percolating for months, but they were crystallized for millions of Americans in a single moment, when, on orders from Attorney General Eric Holder, the FBI told the Christmas Day bomber: “You have the right to remain silent.”

The call to stop reading terrorists their Miranda rights became a rallying cry for Brown, whose chief strategist said, “From our own internal polling, the more potent issue here in Massachusetts was terrorism and the treatment of enemy combatants.” It will become an even more potent issue in the 2010 midterm elections — and the 2012 presidential race — if Obama does not change course.

Second, the president faces growing discontent with his approach to health care and jobs. Americans have been taken aback by the unprecedented miasma of spending in Washington and that policy’s failure to produce the jobs Obama promised. By large numbers, Americans oppose Obama’s plans for a second stimulus spending bill — so much so that Obama has stopped calling it a stimulus bill.

And millions of our citizens, including large numbers of independents, see Obama’s health care plan as a Trojan horse for the socialization of the largest sector of the U.S. economy. The election of Brown sent a signal to Washington that even in Massachusetts — a state Obama carried by 24 points — Americans are opposed to the approach the president is taking in these areas.

Wednesday night, Obama must address this discontent. The State of the Union is the one moment when citizens who do not normally follow the daily twists and turns of Washington tune in to take an assessment of their president. This makes the address a moment of both peril and opportunity for Obama. Will the president double-down on his current policies and try to explain to the American people why their opinions are wrong? Or will he tell Americans he has heard their message and explain how he is adjusting course?

On terrorism, Americans saw the near catastrophe on Christmas Day as a wake-up call and want some sign that Obama saw it that way as well. Will he continue to insist that we got vital intelligence from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in the 50-minute interrogation before he was given a lawyer? Or will he acknowledge that it was a mistake to read this terrorist suspect his Miranda rights and return to the promise he made on the campaign trail, declaring, “Do these folks deserve Miranda rights? Do they deserve to be treated like a shoplifter down the block? Of course not.”

Will the president defend his plan to try Mohammed and other 9/11 conspirators in civilian court? Or will he heed the popular will and put them back into the military commission system, where they belong?

On health care, will the president continue to insist that if Americans just understood what he was trying to do, they would support him? Or will he reach across the aisle and say: “Let’s start over with a bill that puts aside the issues that divide us and combines the best ideas Republicans and Democrats have put forward”?

If Obama were to embrace Republican ideas like expanding health savings accounts and creating association health plans — and combine them with popular Democratic ideas like requiring coverage for pre-existing conditions, providing subsides for low-income people and creating insurance exchanges — he could pass health care legislation that would be popular and bipartisan.

Obama has said that both parties agree on “about 80 percent of what needs to be done.” He should focus on enacting that 80 percent, instead of waging a losing war for the 20 percent the majority of Americans oppose.

After a similar repudiation at the polls, Obama’s Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton stood in the rostrum of the House and declared that “the era of Big Government is over.” This may be too much to expect from Obama. But the president needs to acknowledge and respond to the public discontent with his handling of terrorism and health care. If Obama stays the course, the insurrection we saw in Massachusetts will spread across the nation — and Republicans will ride these issues back to power.

Marc A. Thiessen was chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush and the lead writer on Bush’s last two State of the Union addresses. His new book, “Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack” has just been published by Regnery.

Obama's Mission: Feeling the Moment

By John Neffinger

“The president's going to explain why he thinks the American people are angry and frustrated.” So says White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs of tonight's speech.  That may not cut it. 

The race for the rage began in earnest weeks ago, with Senator McCain and GOP Rep. Issa launching crusades against too-big-to-fail banks and Secretary Geithner, respectively.  Obama also pivoted to populism with his new soak-the-banks tax – er, “fee.”  Now, in the wake of the Massachusetts Miracle/Debacle, everyone in politics seems to agree that the electorate is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, and whichever party speaks to that best will win big in the midterm elections to come. 

The Democrats in general and Obama in particular have two things working against them here. First, the democrats have power – lots of power, with the White House and (for the time being) giant majorities in Congress.  Usually this is a good thing, but right now one in six of their working-age constituents has no job.  And when those constituents get restless and it's time to throw the bums out, they're the bums.  Axelrod and Plouffe, the brains behind Obama's Change We Could Believe In campaign, now talk of Congressional Dems running against the Republican minority, sporting their new slogan: You Think We're Bad? Check Out Those Other Guys!  And yet, when Axelrod was asked this Sunday about the country's economic problems, he explained that President Clinton had left a giant surplus, and President Obama had inherited a giant debt.  It's tricky to make your campaign about how bad your opponents are if you're too polite to name them.

This brings us to the Democrats' second problem, and Obama's principle challenge in the speech tonight.  Generally speaking, Democrats speak policy while Republicans speak principle; Democrats speak to the head while Republicans speak to the heart.  Already Obama has tried to appeal to the angry mob with his bank tax, and tonight he will unveil a three-year discretionary spending freeze.  And maybe a jobs package.  All of these are arguably good policy (except the mid-recession spending freeze), and all could show the President taking bold action.  But policies alone will not bridge the emotional gap growing between him and his constituents, of all ideological stripes.  Obama is cool, calm and collected.  Voters are agitated.  This combination worked well when he was the savior insurgent calling for change.  Now he's an incumbent counseling patience, and people are fresh out.  The perception is that he just doesn't get it.  He's emotionally out of step.  We don't ever see him angry.  We don't see him stare down the enemy and lay down the law.  We see him give thoughtful explanations of why people really should do what he'd like, and when they don't, he seems miffed, pinching in the corners of his mouth like Kermit the Frog.  

So if the President really does “explain why he thinks the American people are angry and frustrated,” Democrats beware.  But if instead he shows us that he is himself angry and frustrated, if he flashes some flint and some fire, if he rails against Washington like the Reagan of yore – if when you watch, you can feel it in your gut that this man is finally mad enough to pull the levers of power and bend Washington to his will...  Then we have ourselves a ballgame. 

In fact, if you really want to know how well he does, watch him with the sound off and read the transcript separately.  Yes, you'll miss Joe Wilson's latest ad libs, but you'll see Obama's political future more clearly.

Neffinger, a principal at KNP Communications, is a veteran speechwriter and trainer for high-level corporate executives and political leaders.

Obama's SOTU PR Ploy

Giving new meaning to the term PR stunt:

PR Junkie is reporting that one of Obama's special guests for tonight's SOTU is the head of the PR firm Trendy Minds, which doubled its employees in 2009 and will be celebrated as an economic success story.

Obama's Mission: Tension Manager

By Charles Rousseaux

Pressure is part of the always-melting pot of politics, and there are a number of tensions that the President needs to address tonight.

One is between the optimism of President Obama’s election and the frustration that has followed. I worked against his election, and yet Obama’s swearing-in still seemed to confirm America’s status as an exceptional place of relentless possibility. But that optimism has given way to an uncharacteristic strain of American pessimism from seemingly intractable unemployment, ineffective reforms and a rising tsunami of debt. 

Suspect the President will try to resolve that tension between aspiration and frustration through more Kennedy- or Reagan-style rhetoric – “an American renewal” or “a reformed system and a kindled faith in our future” – as well as a salute to the heroes of Ft. Hood and perhaps Haiti.

But, to this space cadet, he’s off to an absolutely un-Kennedy start by attempting to kill America’s renewed Moon program (though don’t expect to hear about that tonight). And whatever his rhetoric, it will be met with the reality of ugly approval numbers and a recalcitrant Congress.

That’s another tension tonight: The rhetoric vs. the reality. Obama seems to be leaning toward ‘I-feel-your-pain’ style smaller economic proposals, which also stand a slightly greater chance of legislative success. Yet he also seems determined to keep pressing for deeply unpopular policies such as health care reform.

Best prediction is that he’ll still try to have it both ways. He’ll also probably make a gesture of bipartisanship by saluting newly-elected Senator Scott Brown. But, unless he produces workable (bipartisan and passable) policies that actually work, he’s likely to meet new and even harder realities: A further alienated base, a still-stagnant economy, and an additionally weakened Presidency.

There are other tensions that could be named, such as between hot populism and no-drama, between debt increases and spending freezes, and between President and Prime Minister.

But no matter what Obama says this evening, the most important tension will remain unseen. That’s the tension between what Obama says tonight . . . and what he actually does tomorrow.

Charles Rousseaux served as a speechwriter at the Republican National Committee during the 2008 campaign and for a variety of principals in the George H.W. Bush administration.

Politico's Latest SOTU Coverage

Politico has put up a couple choice morsels of SOTU coverage in the last few hours:

A survey of Democratic players in Washington finds that —surprise —that there are big differences in the advice they are giving Obama.

Also, Ben Smith explains why the Republican response is filled with pitfalls.

Obama's Mission: Control Speak

By Robert George
(Cross-posted from Ragged Thots)

Every State of the Union is filled with a laundry list of policy proclamations. There will also be the requisite guests in the balcony that symbolize some presidential priority. And, of course, there will be the staged lines guaranteed to elicit applause/standing ovation from one side of the aisle and scorn (at best) from the other side (will the GOP assign a page to be on "gag-Joe-Wilson" duty?).

However, the best thing Barack Obama might try to present tonight isn't a huge list, but project more a mood of control. In the last few weeks, continued unemployment, the health-care reform mess -- combined with the Christmas Day airplane plot -- helps underscore a sense that Washington, DC, isn't working as it should. Has Barack Obama launched too ambitious an agenda for sclerotic Washington to push through? Is it too much, too soon? Was a freshman president who had barely four years as a senator too naive to think the "establishment" could juggle all the balls he tossed into the air?

Those balls are still floating.

Obama needs to put forth words of to speak to the nation's broader anxiety -- anxiety grounded in both

He's got to to reassure the country that his approach to dealing with terrorists -- closing Gitmo, moving detainees stateside, trying them in civilian courts, giving them Miranda rights -- is not just constitutional, but is also the smartest option that will keep Americans safe. (And, yes, that means at home

In short, Barack Obama has to reassure the American people that they were correct when they took a flier on a freshman senator who just happened to be attractive, had a great personal story, a beautiful family and could speak fantastically. Can he convince them that he's

Tonight's speech is a start, but after a disappointing first year, Barack Obama needs, in the days ahead, the power of deeds rather than words.

George is an editorial writer for the New York Post and a former Capitol Hill speechwriter.


Some pre-SOTU musings from the New Republic:

The editors say it's time for Obama to show what he's made of.

Jonathan Cohn suggests that Obama must give the speech of his life, again —and questions whether he can do it, again.

New York Mag: SOTU, So What

The New York Magazine Daily Intel blog offers a slightly different take on the SOTU stakes and its relative importance.

Obama to America: "I See You"

By Jim Kennedy
(Cross-posted from Huffington Post)

In some of his speeches over the past decade, to illustrate the importance of recognizing our common humanity, former President Bill Clinton has spoken of the people who live north of Nelson Mandela's home in Africa and how they greet one another not with a "hello," but the phrase, "I see you."
The same words are used by the inhabitants of Pandora in Avatar, in recognition of their common Na'vi-nity.

President Barack Obama, despite his African roots and Na'vi-like tall and thin frame, is unlikely to be saying "I see you" in his State of the Union message. But he might take its spirit to heart in strengthening his connection with the American people once again.

The bond the President forged in the 2008 election is strained, but not broken. The Massachusetts Senate race highlighted the challenge he faces, but was more an alarm clock than a death knell. If he and his team learn the right lessons and make smart choices as a result, the Scott Brown election could be one of the best things to happen to the Obama Administration and the Democrats this year.

President Clinton had no such special election to foreshadow what was looming for him in the 1994 midterm elections, and the Democratic losses in the Senate and the House were catastrophic. Still, he managed to turn his fortunes around in time to win an impressive reelection victory just two years later.

He did so, as Mark Penn recently wrote in The Huffington Post, by moving to the "vital center" and pursuing a balanced budget, welfare reform and other policies that focused on the concerns of struggling, middle class families. Bruce Reed, who played a big role in charting that centrist course in the Clinton Administration, wrote here that President Obama and Democrats "should reassure citizens every step of the way that our mission is to make government better, not bigger."

With that in mind, President Obama's version of "I see you" must convey to people that he understands both the extent of their problems and their hesitancy to grow government to solve them. He has to assure citizens he's got the vision of where he wants to take the country and the wisdom to make it happen, while simultaneously respecting their skepticism of his and government's ability to succeed. Sure, it's oxymoronic, but nobody promises a president a communications Rose Garden.

Of course, complicating any effort to fashion bold-yet-limited, centrist-yet-sexy policy initiatives are the resurgent Republican attack machine on the right and the mad-as-hell-and-we-just-might-not-take-it-much-longer netroots on the left. But rather than play piƱata for politicos in extremis, President Obama should leverage the right-left criticism to help him drive home the point that he is pursuing a bipartisan course right down the middle of American family concerns. In practical terms, that means less fighting for a fragile 59-plus-1 Democratic majority on the Hill, and more work behind the scenes with the likes of Joe Lieberman, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to grow a center-out coalition around issues of common concern. The resulting bipartisan solutions can enjoy both a stronger chance of passage in Congress and more support from independent-minded people in America.

President Clinton said it well in his My Life biography: "the electorate may be operationally progressive, but philosophically it is moderately conservative and deeply skeptical of government." If President Obama can Na'vi-gate that theme and fight for a future in which people have the tools and the freedom to pursue their middle class American Dreams, then he will have conveyed to those most concerned about his leadership, in deeds if not in words, "I see you." And they, in turn, will see in him once again the hope and promise they celebrated just one year ago this week.

Jim Kennedy, a good Gotham Friend, is a former White House and Senate communications staffer and speechwriter.

Chris Cillizza On SOTU Stakes

Chris Cillizza, who writes the Fix political blog for the Washington Post, lays out the considerable stakes for Obama's SOTU:
He will speak just eight days after suffering the most significant political and policy setback of his first year in office when Republicans claimed a victory in a Massachusetts Senate special election that robbed Democrats of their 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority. That loss set off a panic among Democratic elected officials, an anxiety that has led to rumors of a bevy of retirements from members who now believe they simply can't win in the climate the administration has created. (While the animosity between some elements of the Democratic Congress and the White House has been papered-over to date, it slipped out a bit when retiring Rep. Marion Berry told his local newspaper that Obama had explained to him that 2010 wasn't 1994 for one simple reason: "You've got me.") Given that context, one of Obama's main challenges will be to assure Democrats that he understands the political peril they are in and he is moving to help them -- primarily by focusing almost exclusively on the economy and job creation particularly for the middle class. The proposals the White House has already previewed -- a three-year freeze on most domestic spending, more money for military families, a series of tax cuts and credits aimed at middle class families -- have a strong populist tint and White House aides have made clear in the day leading up to tonight's speech that the president will seek to make the case that he -- and Democrats by extension -- are standing up for the average American against Republicans and big business. Obama is not a populist by nature and may well struggle if he tries to deliver a campaign-style speech in a chamber where Republicans will be looking to make their opposition to his proposals known.

More on the WSJ/NBC pre-SOTU poll

Here are some additional insights into the new WSJ/NBC pre-SOTU poll and its implications for Obama's speech tonight from Alex Bratty of Public Opinion Strategies, which helps conduct the poll.

More pre-SOTU polling insights

Some valuable political context for tonight's speech, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.
According to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 51% of Americans believe Mr. Obama has paid "too little attention" to the economy. Forty-four percent think he has paid "too much attention" to his proposed overhaul of health care. A plurality continues to think that Mr. Obama's health-care plan is a bad idea.

Wednesday night's address marks a key moment in the White House's efforts to recover from a difficult year and try to strengthen the Democratic Party to minimize election losses in November.

In the speech, Mr. Obama will make a renewed focus on the economy and rising government deficits, with proposals such as a spending freeze in certain areas, designed to underscore the president's pivot to fiscal matters and away from an all-hands focus on transforming health care. The survey shows that the public should welcome the shift, which the White House has put into high gear since the Democrats' loss of a Senate seat in Massachusetts last week.

The number of people who approve of the job Mr. Obama is doing on the economy ticked up to 47%, up five points from the December survey. And only 27% registered voters said their decision on whom to support in the November congressional elections would be "a vote to send a signal of opposition" to the president.

The numbers, while still gloomy for a president who one year ago was beloved by the public, suggest that the president's months-long slide in the polls might have stabilized. Even though his poll ratings have slipped steeply since taking office, the poll suggests he enjoys deeper support in the country than members of Congress from either party.

Obama's Mission: Be Short and Direct

By Lisa Schiffren
(Cross-posted from the New York Times Room for Debate blog)

Yes, the State of the Union is a laundry list of achievements, goals and policy aspirations that is boring to write, to read, to hear and to comment on. And yet, unlike speeches meant to sell candidates or policies, it serves as an annual report, for the administration and the nation. For an administration off to a bad start it is an opportunity to dispel gathering mistrust and restore fraying credibility by noting lessons learned and new approaches to the nation’s most serious problems.

Right now President Obama's speechwriters are undoubtedly rewriting the triumphant State of the Union draft centered on a health care victory.  They should trash the overused flights of unmoored rhetoric and inspirational words that obfuscate real intent, and turn in something short and entirely straightforward in tone.

To refocus his priorities, the president must start with the economy, and the fact that it has not improved in the last year. The jobless numbers are terrible and he needs to show Congress that he’s on it.  Growth and job creation need to be at the core of the speech. Acknowledging that his stimulus plan fell short, and offering measures to give businesses confidence to hire adds credibility.  (Forget those new banking proposals.)

Next, the president should declare that America's safety is his responsibility. Announce that there will be no more Fort Hood massacres or underwear bombers on his watch. And note that, despite his goodwill, our enemies are intransigent -- so he has new plans to thwart them. He should express confidence that his troop surge in Afghanistan will show results by this time next year.

On health care, President Obama needs to tell the American people that it's back to the drawing board starting with incremental changes for the system's worst failings. He should acknowledge what went wrong. What he has learned will help him -- as will remorse for the appearance of arrogance and zeal, which led to deals that don’t meet his "open government" standard. He should promise open debate. "Your trust," "your confidence," and "truly bipartisan" are good phrases -- better if he means them.

Finally, to change the perception that President Obama talks but doesn’t work hard at governing, the speech should be kept to 25 minutes. That will be a surprising gesture of modesty. It will make viewers happy. And it will disarm the G.O.P. response.

While State of the Union speeches have become formulaic and tedious, for President Obama this is a useful opportunity to shift direction, shore up credibility, and stem the rising of buyer's remorse. If he doesn’t do that, next year's speech won't have a lot of successes to show either.

Lisa Schiffren was a speech writer to Vice President Dan Quayle. She writes speeches for corporate executives and Republican officials and contributes to The Corner and American Thinker

Obama's Mission: Crash the Wedding

By John Herr

It’s State of the Union season in Washington.  Outside, the streets are empty, dark, and cold.  Inside, the Democrats’ hearts are suffering an across-the-board freeze.  A brutal nor’easter from Massachusetts has buried their hopes for change (“A Republican will win Teddy’s seat when they play haw-key in Fenway Pawk!”)

Democrats should remember that the State of the Union Address is a beginning, not an end.  President Clinton proved it when, with Speaker Newt Gingrich looming behind him, he declared that the era of big government was over. Nine months later, so was the era of Bob Dole.

The SOTU is like a giant wedding rehearsal dinner.  Dressed to the nines, everyone steps into their pre-arranged places, going through the ceremonial motions.  (Applaud!  Now look sullen!)  The two feuding families are on their best behavior, with a few exceptions.  (“Love, honor, and obey?  You LIE!!” -- Uncle Joe Wilson).

The actual wedding isn’t until November.  Voters have all year to watch ceremony give way to acrimony.  Tonight, President Obama will preview the Democrats’ wedding day strategy.  It consists of something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.

SOMETHING OLD.  Who would have thought President George H.W. Bush -- the father -- would inspire President Obama’s economic agenda?  In 1988, Bush proposed the oxymoronically named “flexible freeze.”  And now, so has Obama.  “It’s not an across-the-board freeze,” said Vice President Biden’s economic adviser Jared Bernstein.  “We’re talking about boosting the spending that helps the middle class [and] pushing back on the special interests.” Good luck with that.

Obama’s proposal has disheartened the Left and puzzled the Right.  Pollster Nate Silver called it the “White House’s Brain Freeze.”  Obama opposed Sen. John McCain’s call for a spending freeze during the 2008 campaign.  Now he’s winning McCain’s praise.  Could the famous “O” logo be morphing into a triangle?

SOMETHING NEW.  Liberals hated to see Massachusetts turn Republican.  But they despised the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, which turned corporations into people.  “I can’t think of anything more devastating to the public interest,” said President Obama, speaking from a grain silo in Nebraska filled with bribed Medicaid dollars.

Of course, things cannot change into people -- except for the Jersey Shore hot tub, which had so much human DNA in it by summer’s end that it could walk across the deck.  But the decision is not unprecedented.  In the late 19th century, which historians call the “ZZ-Top Beard Era,” the Supreme Court ruled that corporations were protected under the Fourteenth Amendment.

In his address, President Obama will offer red meat to angry Democrats in the form of corporate governance legislation.  Republicans will then remind him that if he wants to stop treating corporations like citizens, he could simply stop taxing the crap out of them.

SOMETHING BORROWED.  Some Democrats claimed that Scott Brown’s win was a referendum on the economy, not on health care reform.  Uh, hello?  Brown didn’t promise to be the 41st vote to lower unemployment rates.

The Democrats have blown it on health care.  Pundit E.J. Dionne telegraphed their arrogance before Brown’s win, urging them to quickly pass the bill so they could then “sell the contents of their reform to a skeptical public.”  Yeah, pass it and THEN let us know what’s in it.

President Obama has an opportunity to help his party by borrowing the most popular features of the bill (there aren’t many) and daring Republicans to vote them down.  In her debate with Brown, Martha Coakley cited three of them: closing the “donut hole” in Medicare, prohibiting denial of coverage for preexisting conditions, and allowing insurance to be sold across state lines.  If Obama added medical malpractice reform to the mix, he could pick off 15-20 GOP senators.  That’s the true definition of bipartisanship: choosing an issue your opponents are afraid to oppose.

SOMETHING BLUE.  Democrats were cheered by former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe’s recent move to the White House.  Plouffe’s first piece of advice for them?  “No bed-wetting.”  (Hey, is that a preexisting condition?)

Blue Staters needed something to cheer about.  They aren’t getting another stimulus bill -- heck, Obama’s economic team can’t even agree on how many jobs have been created or (bogus term alert) “saved” by the first one.  Health care reform as they knew it is dead.  And they probably aren’t getting cap and trade.

But they will be getting a promise from Obama to “fight” for change.  And he might win.  For all their recent successes, the GOP has not yet closed the sale.  While campaigning, Scott Brown rarely spoke the word “Republican,” preferring “independent” instead.  He modeled himself after JFK while avoiding comparisons to the Bush Administration.  Republicans in Congress have no reason to be complacent.

In his second year as President, Ronald Reagan asked Americans to “stay the course” through the worst economy since FDR.  It worked.  Two years later, Americans gave him the biggest reelection victory since LBJ.  Tonight, Americans will learn President Obama’s new course. If  he gets behind a more popular and populist agenda, and the economy recovers quickly, he may be able to renew his vows with the voters -- and save his party from annihilation.

Herr served as speechwriter at the Department of Education and the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Talking Back to the State of the Union

Wish you could ask the President a follow-up question after the SOTU?  Well, thanks to YouTube and the White House, now you virtually can.  So reports techPresident:
The White House announced on the White House blog this morning that Obama's SOTU on Wednesday night will have an added dash of citizen participation, one that harkens back to the early days of the Obama administration and its experimentation with projects like its Open for Questions forum, where thumbs-up-thumbs-down technology bubbled up questions for administration officials, and an online town hall. . .

On Wednesday night, during the 9 p.m. ET speech, a special section will be opened up on YouTube where anyone and everyone so equipped can post a follow-up question to the President Obama's State of the Union address. Google Moderator is in place to collect the public's votes on the video questions. Some of the ones that bubble to the top will be taken to the White House next week by the YouTube team. Obama will answer the questions live, streamed on YouTube at a day and time to be announced later. Calling it the "State of the Union 2.0," White House new media director Macon Phillips wrote on the White House blog that, "we are excited to announce how President Obama will also be using the web to offer the public a direct and participatory way to communicate back to him."

Obama's Secret SOTU Weapon: Scott Brown

NOTE: This inventive proposal comes to us from a Gotham Friend who is a recovering political speechwriter.

We already hear that President Obama will use his State of the Union
speech to try transitioning the conversation from health care reform,
which has dominated the debate for the last year, to the flagging
economy, which is still foremost in the minds of most Americans.

That's as it should be. We can only hope that his economic proposals
are substantive so they rise to meet the rhetoric.

But health care is still the elephant--or the petrified woolly
mammoth--in the room. Democrats want Obama to pledge to fight for
something like the legislation that already passed both houses of
Congress, bipartisanship be damned. Republicans want him to surrender
and admit he was wrong to ever daring to try to cover the uninsured in
the first place. He will clearly chart a middle course. The question
is how.

Obama should invite sudden superstar Scott Brown, who's not yet
formally seated in the Senate, to the speech. Welcome him to the job
of filling the shoes held by Sen. Edward Kennedy, who Obama revered.
Make a genuine appeal to work with Brown and other Republicans to find
common ground on health care.

And then--and this part will have to be done delicately--use Brown's
own support for the Massachusetts health care plan to make a renewed
push for reform.

Something like: "Sen.-elect Brown, you've said you believe all
Americans deserve health care coverage. I agree. You've said you
support the 2006 health care law that expanded coverage in
Massachusetts. I agree, which is why that law, imperfect as it was,
served as a major inspiration for the bill that passed the Senate.
You've also said that the Massachusetts law did too little to control
costs. Again, I agree.

How can we agree on these critical basics and still be standing on
different sides of the room, with our arms folded? That's an
abdication of responsibility. It's a failure of leadership.

I invite you and all Republicans to sit with Democrats and hammer out
a bill that insures as many of the uninsured as possible, cracks down
on insurance company abuses and dramatically cuts costs. There is
common ground--on banning preexisting condition discrimination, on
selling insurance across state lines, on tackling medical malpractice
reform, on giving individual Americans more control over their health
care choices.

I am willing to drop some of my priorities if you are willing to come
to the table and negotiate in good faith. We need reform, desperately.
I'm serious when I say I want a solution, not a campaign issue.
Everyone else in this Congress should prove they do, too."

Obama on Obama on ABC News

President Obama provided a little taste of the tone he'll take in the SOTU Monday night in his exclusive interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC News.

The headline grabbing comment: "I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president," Obama said.

But later in the interview, Obama signaled he would take some responsibility for the breakdown of the health care debate.  And that he would dish some to Congress too.

"I think the healthcare debate as it unfolded legitimately raised concerns not just among my opponents, but also amongst reporters that we just don't know what's going on," and that some "stray cats" got in the bill, he said.

But the president insisted "I didn't make a bunch of deals… I am happy to own up to the fact that I have not changed Congress and how it operates the way I would have liked."

SOTU Preview Round-up

Here are some pre-SOTU reports and comments from around the Web that we thought we were worth sharing.
  • Some more detail on the spending freeze proposal that Obama will tout in the SOTU, courtesy of Politico.
  • David Paul Kuhn at Real Clear Politics offers some historical perspective on the (minor) political import of the SOTU on presidential fortunes.
  • Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun Times suggests that Obama will have to make like Houdini to get out of the political box that the the health care debate has put him in today.

Bill Clinton's Revenge

By William McGurn
(Cross-posted from the Wall Street Journal)

He's baaaaack.

When the president enters the House chamber tomorrow night to deliver his maiden State of the Union address, members of Congress, the press, and the public will see Barack Obama at the podium. But they will have Bill Clinton on their minds.

Specifically they will be thinking of 1995, when a humbled Mr. Clinton addressed a newly Republican Congress after his own health-care proposals went down in flames. Though President Obama's party still holds the majority in both houses, it is a scared majority that has been unnerved by the unpopularity of the president's signature policy issue (health care) and terrified by the loss to Republicans of what they all, with David Gergen, regarded as the "Kennedy seat." So whatever Mr. Obama says tomorrow night, his words will inevitably be compared with the speech Mr. Clinton used to rescue his own presidency.

You see it in the return of words such as "pivot" and "triangulate," all evocative of a Clinton-like shift, in the pre-State of the Union commentary. Even those urging Mr. Obama to come out swinging rather than compromise are forced into a Clinton comparison. Thus the headline over Democratic strategist Robert Shrum's story in the magazine The Week last Friday: "Is this Clinton's Third Term?"

Even for the comeback kid, this is quite a turnaround. Almost two years ago to the day, Bill Clinton was a pariah in polite Democratic society—blamed for his wife's loss in the South Carolina primary, where he had compared Mr. Obama to Jesse Jackson. That followed a similar storm in the New Hampshire primary, where he also created a stir by characterizing Mr. Obama's antiwar credentials as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."

A few days after the South Carolina loss, Sen. Edward Kennedy and his niece Caroline administered what appeared to be the coup de grace by endorsing Mr. Obama. Mr. Clinton must have found it galling to watch Mr. Obama claim the Kennedy inheritance he believed was rightfully his. But Mr. Kennedy didn't stop there, sniping at the Clintons with such lines as "with Barack Obama, we will turn the page on the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion."

Others piled on. It wasn't just that people preferred Mr. Obama to Hillary. The sense was that the Democrats were finally free to purge their party of the Clintons forever. Maureen Dowd captured the mood when she suggested Democrats take their cue from a Dr. Seuss rhyme: "The time has come. The time is now. Just go. I don't care how. You can go by foot. You can go by cow. Will you please go now!"

Yet for all his undeniable weaknesses, Mr. Clinton does seem to understand something that eludes Mr. Obama: In a center-right nation, a liberal doesn't want to get too far ahead of the voters. At times (and HillaryCare was one) Mr. Clinton got himself too far out in front—but when he had, he'd generally been careful to respond by scurrying back to the center and appropriating his opponents' most appealing messages.

That's exactly what he did in 1995, deploying humor and humility with equal effect in his State of the Union. "I know we bit off more than we can chew," he told Congress.

The following year he declared "the era of big government is over." He also reached out to Republicans on policy, embracing everything from welfare reform to the Defense of Marriage Act.
In the process, he learned one thing: In a nation where roughly 20% describe themselves as liberal, 40% as conservative, and 40% as moderate, there's not a high price for shutting out the left. As for history, Mr. Clinton went on to become the only Democrat since FDR to win and serve two full terms as president.

There's no sign that Mr. Obama buys any of this. His team argues, apparently oblivious to the inherent condescension, that no intelligent American could possibly oppose his health-care agenda on substance.

It's all just a big misunderstanding, says the White House. We just need to explain it better—like recasting a second stimulus as a "jobs bill," selling health-care reform as "deficit reduction," and throwing in a lot of speech references to the "middle class."

For his part, Mr. Obama is clear. He says he'd rather be a one-termer than give up on his agenda. But this State of the Union, with the president's approval ratings sinking, Democrats have to be asking themselves: Do Mr. Obama's chances of getting his agenda through really go up if the congressmen and senators listening to his words come to the conclusion he's a short-timer?

McGurn, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, was formerly chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush

Can Obama Improve the State of the State of the Union?

By David Murray

Every year the State of the Union is the same story, even if we aren’t in a mid-term election year in a crap economy with a president’s popularity teetering atop a teetering piece of signature legislation.

Ahead of the SOTU show, everybody says the president’s got to say something—stay the course, ignore the doubters, things will get better if you just follow me—and instead, he says everything, and we remember none of it at all.

I once heard James Carville say everyone accuses communication advisors like him of filling empty vessels with their words. “Naw,” he said, “I empty full vessels”—persuading his clients to say one meaningful, powerful thing, and to say it well.

The State of the Union, traditionally, is full-to-overflowing, as if this is the president’s only chance to communicate on every front. (It’s not!)

I realize that’s the genre. But it’s not a commandment.

And when the stakes are this high, one hopes a president who claimed to offer change we could believe in could bring himself to tweak the SOTU, and focus on “one crucial matter I need to discuss with you tonight,” letting us know the rest of the stuff is in the PowerPoint deck, available at

Anything short of a New Kind of State of the Union, and I predict all the pundits, including yours truly, will be expressing disappointment for the umpteenth consecutive year going back to the days when it was called the Annual Message.

(That’s Message, singular.)

David Murray is editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, and editor of the widely read free weekly ezine, Executive Communication Report.

Ten Things to Watch for in the State of the Union

By Dan Gerstein

To kick off our State of the Union Blog-a-Thon, and set the stage for the discussion to come, we've put together a viewer's guide of ten things to watch for during Wednesday's speech.  The first five are more general, the second five more political, and all of them are meant to be non-partisan.  With that, here goes.

1) What IS the state of the union?  One of the trickiest challenges for a president and his speechwriters in tough economic times like these is choosing the right words to describe the country's present state.  Sound too optimistic and you risk looking out of touch.  Sound too dour and you risk depressing your audience.  How will Obama walk that fine rhetorical line and set the tone for the rest of his maiden SOTU?

2) What's the big news nugget? It's standard practice for modern presidents to announce at least one major new policy proposal in the SOTU to drive media coverage.  Obama has already trotted out two headline-generating ideas this week —a middle class relief package and a three-year domestic spending freeze —that we know he'll tout.  Does he have one or two more up his sleeve that he's saving for the hall?

3) What's Obama's line? Modern SOTUs rarely seem to produce enduring and/or presidency defining turns of phrases —one notable exception being Bill Clinton's declaration that the era of big government was over.  But they do usually yield a singular soundbite that the chattering classes seize on and the TV networks repeatedly loop.  Will Obama, with his acute sense of history, swing for the posterity fences?  If not, which piece of the speech will be replayed and remembered the next day?

4) Who's that girl (or guy)? Ever since Reagan, presidents have invited a special symbolic guest (or six) to sit in the First Lady's box for the SOTU as a way to put a human face on their agenda and get some easy associational love.  How will Obama use his human capital?  Will he opt for quality (focusing on one issue or theme) or quantity (multiple stories to touch on multiple challenges)?

5) Where's the drama? Another staple of the SOTU, especially in the blog era, is the soap opera sideshow.  One year it's Nancy Pelosi not standing for President Bush.  The next it's Hillary Clinton caught on camera rolling her eyes at W.  Then it's Hillary being snubbed by then-Senator Obama, her campaign rival.  Who will be this year's distraction?  Will there be another Joe Wilson moment? Or will the riding high Republicans be on their best behavior?

6) How's my posture?  With Democrats reeling from the Scott Brown Mass-acre, and the Obama's approval numbers dipping below 50 percent, the president comes into the SOTU under tremendous and conflicting pressure to change the tenor of his leadership.  The left is calling for more combativeness and principle; moderates are seeking more modesty and pragmatism.  What turn and tone will Obama take?  Will he split the difference — or split his party?

7) Who will take the blame?  The common message coming out of Massachusetts, according to many analysts, is that Washington still doesn't work; that most voters in the broad middle feel like nothing has change; and that nothing, as a result, is getting done on the economy.  Will Obama validate that frustration by taking some measure of responsibility for it?  Or will he continue, much to the consternation of Republicans, to emphasize the problems he inherited and implicitly (if not explicitly) point the finger at the Bush Administration?

8) Does he feel our pain?  The White House clearly sees the SOTU as a pivot point to refocus on the economy.  Hence the coordinated roll out of the two big policy pieces this week on the middle class and deficit reduction.  But will those new policy nuggets be enough to win back the public's confidence — in particular the salty independents who decided the Massachusetts Senate election?  What else can Obama, who has often struggled to connect with working class voters, say and do to communicate that he gets what they are going through and shares their priorities?

9) What's the deal on health care?  While the economy will be the central focus of the speech, the people in the room and the diehard activists watching will be looking first and foremost for the President to clarify which way he wants to go on health care reform.  Will he unequivocally call for passage of a comprehensive coverage bill like the one he was negotiating with House or Senate leaders before the Brown Mass-acre — and reassure his dispirited base?  Or will he signal that he's open to working out a scaled back plan that could get a handful of moderate Republican votes?

10) How much foreign policy is enough?  With the economy dominating the public's list of concerns, and health care dominating Washington's attention, there's an expectation that Obama's speech will be heavy on domestic issues and light on international ones.  But national security is clearly top of mind for this president, who spent months trying to find the right strategy for the deteriorating war in Afghanistan and is still dealing with the fallout of the Christmas bombing attempt in Detroit.  How will he balance those priorities in time and tone?

Stay tuned here for some predictions.

It's On: State of the Union Blog-A-Thon

Today we're launching a special series on the BloGG previewing Wednesday's State of the Union Address — or as we like to call it, the speechwriters' Super Bowl. 

We have invited speechwriting pros of all political persuasions to chime in with their thoughts on what President Obama should or shouldn't say in his maiden SOTU, offer some historical perspective, or just join in the general kibbitzing.  We'll be posting their responses throughout today and all day Wednesday up to speech time.

We will also be posting links to other pre-speech commentaries and reports that we think are worth sharing.

We hope you will join the conversation.  As they say about voting in Chicago, please feel free to comment early and often on any of the posts that pique your interest or interest your pique.

Let the speechifying begin!

P.S.  We will be continuing the conservation Wednesday night with live commentary throughout the speech.  You can sign up to participate on our Facebook page

Monday, January 25, 2010

Featured Writer: Lauren Weiner

Over at the First Things website, Gotham Friend Lauren Weiner has stirred the pot (so to speak) with a long, provocative meditation on the politics of folk music, entitled "Where Have All the Lefties Gone?".  It's an impressive piece of work — who knew a Pentagon speechwriter could be such an expert on flower-powered culture — and well worth a read.  And don't miss the comments (many nerves were clearly touched).

Friday, January 22, 2010

Men with Pens: Prepare to Laugh

What do you get when you cross swordplay with wordplay?  The Princess Bride Guide to Copywriting.  Fun weekend reading and a few helpful insights from the guys at Men with Pens.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Latest Gerstein Forbes Column

In his weekly political column out today, Gotham President Dan Gerstein offers a contrarian take on Scott Brown's stunning victory special Senate election in Massachusetts.  His case: once you get past the partisan spin and listen to what Brown actually campaigned on, there's a clear message and menace to both parties about their lack of leadership. You can read the full column here.

The Necessity of the Semicolon

No matter what your relationship to the semicolon -- be it just a winky face or a much-needed pause between ideas -- it's hard to write without.  Ragan's Michael Sebastian parses out just why the silly-looking punctuation is here to stay.

Lessons from Thomas Merton

By Mark Shaw

Thomas Merton was called the "greatest spiritual writer of the twentieth century" by Dutch priest and author Henri Nouwen. Ann Lamott said Merton was "a source of lightness and comfort and humor," and Joan Baez believed Merton "had a lightness like the Dalai Lama."

Certainly all of these comments are true, and Merton, a contemporary of Hemingway, Kerouac, and Fitzgerald who wrote more than seventy books including such classics as The Seven Storey Mountain, New Seeds of Contemplation, Wisdom of the Desert, and No Man Is An Island, remains a spiritual voice today regarding his advocacy of the contemplative life, detaching oneself from the crazy side of life.

But, like nearly every legendary wordsmith before him, Merton had a dark side, one caused by guilt over pre-monastic sins ranging from drunkenness, womanizing to the extent of fathering an illegitimate child, adultery, and being a draft dodger. Together with his lack of knowing of what loving, and being loved, was all about, Merton suffered in anguish beneath a mask of holiness pretending to be something he was not so as to satisfy Catholic Church handlers bent on preserving his "plastic saint" image.

Only when Merton finally broke free of the chains binding him in 1966 by falling madly in love with Margie Smith, a student nurse half his age, could he finally discover freedom. He called her a "miracle in my life," one "who completes me." The erotic affair was condemned by the church and Merton was forced to sneak romantic interludes into the clandestine relationship to the extent of making love to Margie in a friendly doctor's office. But the true, selfless love he felt for Margie finally caused Merton to give her up since he knew a life with him under the thumb of the Catholics would be no good for either one of them. Forsaking the love he had waited his whole life to experience, he broke her heart and his, but simply having learned how to love, and be loved set him free as never before.

Exposing the private, warts and all, side of this gifted wordsmith has become quite controversial as vicious attacks from all sides, especially those who feel the book is "anti-catholic," have occurred including accusations that this author chose a "lurid title" with sexual overtones replete with "purple prose." The book has been called a "farce," "pulp fiction," and "badly written . . . a bad book." Poor reviews are part of the risk any author takes, but the personal attacks have been shocking especially when compared with complimentary ones such as Merton scholar Robert Inchausti's saying, "I thought your book was brave, beautifully written, and an honest tribute to Merton." A fellow author called the book "a masterpiece," and educator Jim Seaton wrote, "This is a compulsively readable book, written with the verve and pace of a mystery thriller."

Attempts at banning the book have resulted in the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Merton spent more than twenty years, denying its sale at its bookshop. The assault continues, but there is hope as many people not afraid of the truth are reading what I believe to be a very inspiring story, a true Romeo and Juliet, and discovering a human side of Merton they never knew before. This permits them to connect with the famous monk, and to read his wise words of advice for those confused in a confusing world. Writers like Merton are the guideposts by which we learn and grow, and to silence him is not only censorship and denial of free speech, but denial of our basic right to read all points of view whether we agree with them or not.

Mark Shaw is a "reformed" defense lawyer and television legal analyst turned author of nearly twenty books. Formally a columnist for the Aspen Daily News, Mark lives near Boulder, Colorado with his wife Wen-ying Lu, and their beloved Labrador, Black Sox. More about Mark:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Featured Writer: Ben Wildavsky

From time to time we highlight the work of writers from our stable or who are friends of the firm.  Today we call your attention to a thought-provoking piece from Gotham Friend Ben Wildavsky on the globalization of higher education in the latest edition of the New York Academy of Sciences Magazine.

Ben has a new book coming out this year on this subject, The Great Brain Race, and uses this article to preview his core argument that we have nothing to fear from collegiate border crossing.  We hope you'll check it out and look out for Ben's book in the coming months.

Monday, January 18, 2010

More Speechy Perspective on Obama's First Year

In case you missed it, the Washington Post ran a long feature last week on Obama's top foreign policy speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, that is another must-read.

Besides detailing Rhodes unconventional path to scribe power, it provides some valuable additional perspective on the Speechifier-in-Chief's first year in office, appropos of our post on Friday.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Gerson Speech-Critiques Obama

By Dan Gerstein

Michael Gerson's latest Washington Post column this week critiquing President Obama's rhetorical performance in his first year in office is a must-read for speech groupies and political followers alike.  The former Bush speechwriter (and Gotham friend) gives a particularly thoughtful voice to an increasingly common complaint about the Speechifier-in-Chief — that Obama's speeches as president have not been nearly as inspiring or effective as his campaign oratory.  More important, although it was not Gerson's intent, his analysis also explains why the Obama speech mythology and the Olympian expectations it created were both unfair to him and unsustainable in office.

Gerson uses that myth as the peg for his argument, noting early on that New York Magazine had set up Obama as "our national oratorical superhero — a honey-tongued Frankenfusion of Lincoln, Gandhi, Cicero, Jesus, and all our most cherished national acronyms (MLK, JFK, RFK, FDR)." He goes on to write that Obama's rhetoric as president, by comparison, has been workman-like, unmemorable, and unmoving, pointing to two of Obama's highest profile addresses (his inaugural and his fall Afghanistan speech) as examples.  Even worse, Gerson says, Obama's cool-headed, intellectual style has too often come off as simultaneously too academic and arrogant, even veering "toward messianism."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Early State of the Union Advice

President Obama's first State of the Union address is not even officially scheduled yet, but the advice is already flowing fast and freely.  Former Clinton domestic policy advisor Bill Galston, one of the smartest minds in the biz, offers some same guidance in the form of his ideal speech.  A must read for speech groupies and politicos alike.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Reid It And Weep

In his weekly political column for out today, Gotham President Dan Gerstein breaks down the Harry Reid race scandal, and argues that Democrats have a lot more to be embarrassed about than their Senate leader's latest gaffe.