Wednesday, January 27, 2010

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

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