Forget Civility, Listen for Battle Terms
By Jeff Shesol
The White House is promising sweet reasonableness tonight. There will be uplift, we are told, and goodwill and good cheer in President Barack Obama’s address. There is no reason to doubt this, or write it off as spin. It is perfectly consistent with his tone in Tucson less than two weeks ago and, indeed, has been central to his appeal from the beginning. Obama is no post-midterm convert to civility.
Since this can be taken for granted, I will not be listening tonight for appeals to the better angels of our nature. While that sentiment is important, it is hardly likely to usher in a new Era of Good Feeling—even for one news cycle.
Civility may be the melody line of tonight’s address. But as a harbinger of the year ahead, it matters less than its counterpoint: the phrases that are slightly discordant, that have edge or show flashes of steel. That is what to listen for.
President Bill Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union Address provides a useful analogy—though not for the reasons commentators have offered. It’s true that Clinton, whose party had just lost control of both houses of Congress, struck a conciliatory note and—with the new speaker, Newt Gingrich, looking over his shoulder—called for bipartisan approaches to the nation’s big challenges. It’s also true, as some have pointed out, that Clinton leaned hard on the adverb “together.”
But the most significant word the president uttered that evening was an ordinary, unsung conjunction: but.
Note its importance in lines like the following:
Should we cut the deficit more? Well, of course we should… But we can bring it down in a way that still protects our economic recovery and does not unduly punish people who should not be punished but instead should be helped…
I want to work with you, with all of you, to pass welfare reform. But our goal must be to liberate people and lift them up from dependence to independence, from welfare to work, from mere childbearing to responsible parenting. Our goal should not be to punish them because they happen to be poor. . .
Now, any one of us can call for a tax cut, but I won’t accept one that explodes the deficit or puts our recovery at risk.
“But” in these sentences—and many more like them—was not a hedge. It was a condition, a marking of the boundary between outcomes Clinton was willing to accept and ones he would not. “But” was the battle line, subtly but sharply drawn.
Gingrich and the Republicans, viewing Clinton as weak, did not take him at his word. But when they tested him that year—especially when they shut down the government over the budget—they found that he meant what he had said, and that his State of the Union Address had not only anticipated but defined the fight that followed.
Watch the Republicans tonight, no matter who they might be sitting next to, and their faces will tell you that Washington is about to have another fight, possibly beginning on the way out of the House chamber. A fight over big things—not least whether Obama will get another four years in which to do big things. As GOP leaders have made clear, 2011 is going to be a rancorous run-up to an even more rancorous 2012.
For all Obama’s talk of civility—in Tucson and tonight—there can be no question that the president understands this. If he once overestimated the Republicans’ willingness to reach across the aisle to do something other than swing at a Democrat, he’s no danger of making the same mistake twice.
So tonight’s State of the Union Address is a crucial opportunity for Obama to define the terms of battle for the next two years. Like Clinton, he is deft enough to accomplish this without sounding a single shrill or partisan note.
But to succeed in the end, Obama must, like Clinton, have certain non-negotiables. He must cast them in sharp relief, and send a clear message that he is willing to fight for them.
This is something Obama has seemed reluctant to do over the past two years, raising questions across the political spectrum over what—beyond his policy agenda—he really believes in, and just how firmly he believes in it. Tonight’s speech, for all its fair-mindedness, should leave no room for doubt.
Jeff Shesol served as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton from 1998-2001. He is the author of Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court and is a partner at West Wing Writers. This piece originally appeared on Politico.
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