Friday, January 21, 2011

Our SOTU Expert Advice Series Begins

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of advice columns we will be publishing from speechwriting pros of all political stripes in the run-up to next Tuesday's State of the Union, offering the president free counsel on what he should and shouldn't say.  We encourage you to share your views/responses in the comment section that follows each post.) 

Time For A Tearjerker
By Jim Kennedy

People wondered if Piers Morgan was going to make Oprah cry last Monday night.  But the real question is whether Barack Obama will bring tears to the eyes of John Boehner during Tuesday’s SOTU.

SOTU, of course, is shorthand for State of the Union message, but this year it could just as well mean Starting Over, Talking Unity.  Because that is what President Obama might want to consider doing with his historic Constitutional opportunity.  Set out a new direction for America that is driven by a renewed spirit of possibility and purpose.

The lead-up to this year's speech is evidence that the more things change, the more they sometimes don't stay the same.  As recently as mid-term election night, few people could have guessed the political and societal context in which the President will take the rostrum in the House of Representatives next Tuesday evening.  The tragic events in Tuscon.  The unexpectedly productive not-so-lame duck session of Congress.  The highest approval ratings for the President in more than a year.  Republicans and Democrats sitting next to one another for the State of the Union speech.  Who woulda thunk?

With his State of the Union message, President Obama has a second chance to make a first impression and begin to fashion an argument that not only frames the theme of his campaign in 2012 but also provides the rough outlines of what he might wish his legacy to be after he leaves office.

I agree with Jonathan Alter that the President needs to deliver "a line that can be chiseled in marble (or at least tweeted)" in order to "set the tone he needs for the remainder of his term."  Given the context of our times as well as the reality of the Republican agenda - to portray the President as a radical extremist whose values most Americans do not share - I believe the theme to emphasize (in not so many words) is a clarion and patriotic "call to arms" that asks Americans to lay down their divisive rhetorical weaponry, link arms in pursuit of a common American dream and regain confidence that tomorrow will be better than today.

America has many challenges and enemies - joblessness, the deficit, climate change, terrorism - but among the threats we face is the corrosive effect of cynicism on our national spirit.  Indeed, our ability to solve our problems rests on our having confidence in our ability to do so.  President Obama must try to rally Americans around the flag of our innate and historic optimism, which is what really has set us apart from friends and foes alike around the world throughout history. 

This is something Franklin Roosevelt did so well in 1932, when he said "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."  Granted, it took many years for America to heal the wounds of the Great Depression.  But our country might never have done so - and perhaps never have defeated fascism - if our people had lost their nerve and hope and sense of national destiny.  Today, the only thing we have to fear is doubt in ourselves.

Appealing to the better angels of our nature and speaking to the positive spirit that most Americans embody is what successful two-term Presidents usually do, from FDR to Reagan to Clinton.  We are a “can do” nation without limits, filled with faces of hope.  We must pursue a politics of purpose, infused by a patriotic sense of possibility that transcends partisan rancor.

Certainly the details of the President’s proposals are what matter most to creating jobs, protecting the environment, defending our security and reducing the deficit.  But the substance of his ideas must be enveloped by a “big idea” that can help rally people to his cause.  At the same time, by aiming high and animating his agenda with inspiration and vision, the President can make those who take the low road of cynicism and vitriol seem small and out of step with the values of our nation.

The State of the Union can become the start of a campaign that ends not with an election in 2012, but with a restoration of the public’s confidence in themselves, their leaders and America’s future.  And to be successful, such a campaign must call for unity and sacrifice, recognizing that the limitations of government can be matched with the unlimited potential of civil society; out of that marriage we can create a social network of purpose, from which solutions to our greatest challenges can flow.

If the President can convey such a patriotic sense of possibility with vigor and meaning, he just might make the Speaker sniffle as he sits behind him on the rostrum Tuesday night.  And if Mr. Boehner does tear up, in the spirit of the times, I certainly hope Vice President Biden has a hanky handy to pass his way.

Jim Kennedy worked as a speechwriter and communications director during his years in public service.  He has served as a spokesman for Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman.

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