Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The SOTU Experts Speak: Don Baer

Our National Fireside Chat
By Don Baer

The State of the Union address is one of America’s last remaining national convening moments — not only in the political world but across our entire culture. It is the Super Bowl of our civic life.

So we are going to see the political sportscasters on Tuesday exhaustively play the role we expect from real sportscasters. Instead of diagramming every last gridiron feint, however, Washington watchers will dissect every deft move in President Barack Obama’s speech — how he proposes job creation or deficit cutting. They are ready to analyze every streak to the right, every hip fake to the left, all with an eye on whether the president is positioning himself to hit that centrist end zone.

There is, though, a more important – and more difficult — balancing act in a successful State of the Union, as I learned working for President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, as both his chief speechwriter and White House communications director.

What the American people need from Obama in this critical address is not so much positioning – or repositioning. It is projection.

This address has to serve two, often conflicting, objectives. The president must provide concrete proposals for a specific economic growth agenda that helps Americans improve their lives in these challenging times. But the country is also craving an over-arching optimistic vision of an America that can find its way to a higher common ground — one leading back to a future of hope and opportunity.
Finding that balance is far harder than simply striking the political balance the commentators look for.

The drafting of pretty much every State of the Union starts with the dream of finding this balance between prescription and inspiration. But the one Obama delivers Tuesday presents particular challenges, because of the new mixed political landscape. As we approached writing the 1995 State of the Union in the Clinton White House, we faced similar challenges with a new hostile Republican Congress.

We wrote that speech amid a huge amount of uncertainty — both in terms of inspirational theme and program specifics. A small handful of writing and policy aides worked near all-nighters for days on end. We sorted through mind-numbing arrays of policy options, but with no road-map for deciding what was in and what was out, no clear guidance about policy objectives against the new bold opposition.

At the same time, we wanted to help Clinton re-capture America’s imagination and inspire the country as he had during his 1992 campaign.

Sometimes, Clinton would get frustrated with all the high rhetoric. “Words, words, words,” he complained, as he used his left-handed swipe to strike through our efforts to swing for the fences with images of a better America. I would later mutter to colleagues, “So, I guess we write the speech in numbers, numbers, numbers.”

We were huddled in a room in the Old Executive Office Building, aiming to get the specifics just right, but also to balance with a theme that could move the nation. I would hover over the keyboard of an old PC in the office of Bruce Reed, then the No. 2 domestic policy adviser and now Vice President Joe Biden’s new chief of staff, with Michael Waldman, a policy adviser who would later succeed me as chief speechwriter. Around 2 a.m., Gene Sperling, then the No. 2 economic adviser and now Obama’s new National Economic Council director, would often burst in. He would bring freshly calculated statistics on programs, like Social Security, which absolutely had to go into the economic section we thought we had just finished.

But we took Sperling’s word as the authority on these subjects. That was, in part, because he was supported by a troika of junior aides we called “Thing 1 and Thing 2 and Thing 3” — referring to Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat” characters. (One “Thing” was Peter Orszag, Obama’s former director of Management and Budget.)

That speech went through round after round with Clinton. I was determined to keep the draft he took to Capitol Hill at 6,000 words. We knew that, accounting for ample applause, the president could speak at a pace of 100 words per minute. So that meant the speech would run a respectable hour.

Clinton, however, was still crafting the address right up to deadline. So he had not done his usual rehearsal in the White House family movie theater, in front of all his advisors. That meant he was still not locked onto a text he felt comfortable delivering.

As Clinton gave the speech to Congress, I watched from behind the stage, working with the teleprompter operator. As the president got into the moment, the speech grew to a whopping 9,000 words. It was a rousing performance. But it lasted 82 minutes — at that point the longest State of the Union in history.

Back at the White House family residence, where the president and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton invited aides to celebrate, I was worried. This was my first State of the Union, and I was afraid there had been too much of everything: Policy laundry lists, but also larger thematic content. The speech had dozens of policy proposals and, by my count, about three different beginnings and two endings.

One senior adviser came over to me quietly with early word from our outside pollsters — the speech had flopped. I was a wreck. But then the same adviser rushed back: In fact, the speech had been a big hit with the public. That first State of the Union after the Democrats lost the Congress in 1994 would help put Clinton back on a long, challenging path to recovery. A path that, in November 1996, would lead to his becoming the first re-elected Democratic president in more than a half-century.

That night, I began to learn an important lesson: The State of the Union is the one time each year when the American people get to commune with their president — and they crave the connection.

The longer the better in their view. They want to hear from the one person in our political world who is the genuine national leader. I realized that, policy specifics or soaring rhetoric aside, what matters most is the image and voice of their president. They want an optimistic, determined leader working on their behalf, focusing everyone on higher ground, but also providing concrete ways he will help them.

Then, they want that leader to prove, over and over again in the months to come, that he can deliver.
Clinton’s political recovery – and the recovery of America – provides some guidance for Obama now.

First, Obama needs to find that tough middle ground between policy specifics to help people live and inspirational words to help them hope. That means striking a tone of realistic optimism about America’s progress. The realistic part requires a point-by-point economic growth agenda, detailing how he wants to re-set the country on an innovation economy, creating jobs now and for years to come.

But details without an elevated tone risk sending Obama back to the role of legislator-in-chief, which hurt him the past two years. He needs to invoke the optimism part – lifting America to a politics of common purpose about more than calculating unemployment rates. He needs to talk about renewing a fundamental American faith: That our children’s future can still – and will —be better than the lives we have had.

Second, Obama needs to show he can deliver on both the promise of his agenda and his inspiration. That means embracing a method of governing he has often rejected and his administration has often criticized: Clinton’s “small ball” approach — rolling out specific programs to help Americans in concrete ways.

The Obama administration should view his address as a planning document for the year ahead, a blueprint for the image he wants the country to have of his presidency. This means rolling out specifics from the speech as deliverables, one by one, to the public he was elected to serve every day.

When negotiating for months on end over budget fights or other big legislation, Obama needs to remember the importance of making policy down-payments, week after week, in ways that show the public he is on the job — working for them in more ways than legislative maneuvering.

His administration is advancing many strong initiatives that he could use in these presidential announcements. Consider “Start-Up America,” from his White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, coordinating companies and foundations to nurture the next generation of job-creating American entrepreneurs. Or the Education Department’s efforts to raise standards and improve how we build America’s greatest asset – our people’s creativity and problem-solving abilities. All these form the heart of a realistic optimism for America.

Obama can help America — and himself — if his State of the Union balances the specific with the hopeful. But, even a great speech that balances many demands will not keep the country – or the presidency – on the rebound without a plan to deliver on the speech’s promise.

In sports, everyone remembers the Hail Mary pass, but the ability to sustain greatness comes down to the determination to grind out every last yard of progress. The same will likely be true for the Obama presidency.

Starting with the Tucson speech, Obama hit the right tone. Governing in a spirit of realistic optimism will now require a new determination.

Don Baer served as the communications director and the chief speechwriter in the Clinton White House. He is now worldwide vice chairman and chief strategy officer of Burson-Marsteller. This piece originally appeared in Politico.

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