Friday, January 28, 2011

Got an App for That?

At MediaBistro, Dianna Dilworth rounds up her top five iPhone apps for writers on the go. Unsurprisingly, since—magical as the iPhone is—it has yet to surpass the computer as most writers’ primary editorial apparatus, most of Dilworth's picks focus on allowing you synch your iPhone musings with various programs on your desktop.

Pricing in at “free,” EasyWriter—which lets you tap out your thoughts and email them to yourself—is the cheapest of the options. At $9.99, DocumentsToGoOfficeSuite is more luxurious: it lets you work directly in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Check out her full list, and let us know: have any iPhone apps revolutionized your writing life?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

SOTU Viewership Down. . . Or Is It?

The official numbers are in, and according to Nielsen, this year's SOTU viewership was down 5 million from 2010. Tuesday night's audience clocked in at 43 million, compared to 48 million viewers last year and 52 million for Obama's first address to Congress in 2009 (which technically was not a SOTU address).

Does this indicate declining interest in what the president has to say? Or are more people simply migrating online and watching the speech over the Internet?  We have not seen any tabulations of online viewership yet.  But we suspect that many of those 5 million supposedly lost viewers simply chose to watch on their computer instead of the old idiot box.  If you happen to see any reports on online viewing numbers, please send them our way at: info@gothamghostwriters.  Thanks.

UPDATE: While this doesn't address the question of online viewership, Mashable posted a report today showing a big surge in social media commentary around the SOTU.  According to data gathered from Twitter, there were 400,000 tweets about the speech, including 100,000 during the hour the president was speaking (more than a few of those coming from the GG Tweetchat). An outfit called Tweetbeat dissected the data by keyword, and found the education to be the most mentioned subject by a nose.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

SOTU Post-Mortems: David Meadvin

Why An Unexceptional Speech Got An Exceptional Response
By David Meadvin

The early returns are in, and it's a landslide.

Snap polls (surveys with a small sample size taken immediately after a speech or event) almost always show a positive reaction to the State of the Union address. The reason is simple: if the President of the United States can't make a persuasive argument -- on the grandest platform in the world, with an hour of uninterrupted time -- he's doing something very wrong.

So it was no surprise that the post-State of the Union snap polls released last night and this morning showed a win for President Obama. What was surprising -- more like jaw-dropping -- was the lopsided degree of the President's win.

The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey gave Obama's speech an 84% positive response, while CBS' online poll pegged the positive response at 91%. Perhaps most encouraging for the White House, a survey of swing voters in Colorado by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner found a jump in the President's approval rating from 30% pre-speech to 56% post-speech.

These are blowout numbers. But last night's State of the Union was not a blowout speech. Yes, the President's message was well-crafted. His unfailing optimism made Republicans look sullen by comparison. He challenged Republicans on issues like health care and immigration, but maintained a bipartisan tone throughout.

But this was not a speech for the ages. It had its flat points. Except for the "win the future" tagline, there were few memorable lines or moments. Most analysts suggest that two of his big goals - reaching 80% renewable energy by 2035 and 1 million electric cars by 2015 - are probably out of reach. The world will little note nor long remember what he said last night.

Why the disconnect between an overwhelming response and a relatively unexceptional speech? The answer doesn't have much to do with what happened inside the Capitol building last night. Simply put, Americans are ready to like their president again. The pendulum is swinging back in his favor.

It's hard to feel favorable toward a president in the midst of a devastating recession. Although jobs are coming back, the stock market is strong and consumer spending is on the rise, none of this has been happening fast enough. And for the past two years, President Obama has been so careful to acknowledge the nation's economic suffering that he's struggled to paint an optimistic picture.

That's finally changing. Lately, the President has started to declare a tentative victory on the economy. Yes, there's more work to be done, he's saying, but we're through the worst of it and things are going to keep getting better.

That's exactly what the American people want to hear right now. The country is tired of doom and gloom, just as they're tired of partisan gridlock. People are ready to feel good about the future again.

The dramatically favorable response to the State of the Union is an example of the right message at the right time. The same hopeful message that carried Obama to the White House grew stale as the realities of governing in a recession set in. Now, hopefulness is fresh least until the pendulum swings once more.

David Meadvin is president of Inkwell Strategies, a Washington, DC-based firm that serves the speechwriting and communications needs of leaders in the political, corporate and non-profit sectors. He formerly served as  chief speechwriter for the U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Senate Majority Leader. This piece originally appeared on

SOTU Wrap-up

We will be posting a few post-mortems on the State of the Union from speech pros throughout the day and encourage you to check them out to get a range of views on the president's performance. But in the meantime, here are a few odds and ends observations to share with our fellow speech geeks.
  • Did you notice something missing in the TV commentary? No speechwriters, at least as we could tell. Early yesterday afternoon a friend sent us a list of all the analysts who were to be pundicating on the major networks before and after the SOTU, and there was not one speechwriting pro among them. Now, we can certainly understand wanting to feature known commentators and strategists. But it seems kind of strange to go completely without the relevant expert perspective that comes from crafting political speeches for a living (let alone knowing the challenges that go into writing a State of the Union address).
  • What's a major political event these days without some kind of meta melodrama?  In the case of last night's SOTU, insiders were all atwitter (and a-Twitter) about the leaking of the full speech text to National Journal a few hours before the president began to address the chamber. The White House was apparently furious at the pre-emption. But in this perpetually wired day and age, should anyone be surprised that this happened, or for that matter, think it's worthy of a Beltway meltdown?

SOTU Post-Mortems: John Avlon

Seizing the Center 
By John Avlon
“Winning the Future” seemed to be the intended title of Obama’s second State of the Union– but it could have been called “Seizing the Center.”
The speech was structured to answer the president’s critics with odes to the entrepreneurial spirit and the embrace of American exceptionalism. It opened with a recognition of the wisdom of divided government: “Governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all.”
The speech’s style and substance were influenced by Reagan and Clinton far more than by FDR or LBJ. There were wry attacks on bureaucracy and calls for the federal government to live within its means that echoed Reagan’s first inaugural almost exactly. Bill Clinton’s favorite thematic frame – the macro-economic shift from manufacturing to an information economy – was invoked, with the added urgency of competition with a rising China. This is our "Sputnik moment."
While the president’s delivery sounded flat next to the intensity of the Tucson memorial service speech, that’s a no-win comparison. There was, however, thematic follow-through in the continued drive to the civil center—this time with a policy agenda designed to disarm the opposition.
Read the following paragraphs to a conservative friend as kind of blind political taste test.
• “We have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable. Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.”
• “The best thing we could do on taxes for all Americans is to simplify the individual tax code.”
• “Lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years — without adding to our deficit.”
• “Congress should know this: if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it.”
• “There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different entities that deal with housing policy. Then there's my favorite example: the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked. In the coming months, my administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America.”
The true Nixon-in-China opportunity was forgone in smaller policy specifics that will fail to capture the imagination. It was a lost opportunity.
These are statements that could have come from a President McCain.
Add to that new support for Medical Malpractice Reform, an effort to slash red-tape over-regulation and enact Merit Pay for Teachers and you’ve got significant parts of a center-right policy agenda adopted by this center-left president.
Of course, words are cheap – but the outreach to the right outpaced specific gestures to the left such as reaffirmed support for the DREAM Act. Even a celebratory mention of the end of ‘Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell’ was partnered with a call for all colleges to let the ROTC on campus (about damn time, too).
The populist nods came in the form of eliminating oil-company subsidies and identifying waste in the Pentagon, but those are proposals that many consistent fiscal conservatives support. Any talk of gun control in the wake of Tucson was held for another day, to liberals’ disappointment.
The much discussed ‘bipartisan date-night’ seating arrangement seemed to be a success. The one-side-of-the-house-against-the-other dueling ovations was muted compared with years past. There were 15 bipartisan applause moments in all. Sure, it was symbolic, but it was a step in the right direction, and I hope it plants the seeds of a new standard for State of the Union addresses.
On the negative side of the ledger, there was no bold grand bargain offered by the president. For all the talk about deficit and the debt, his proposals did not reach to specifics on the biggest issue of entitlement reform – and he took the long-term no-brainer of raising the retirement age off the table. The true Nixon-in-China opportunity was forgone in smaller policy specifics that while individually significant, will fail to capture the imagination. It was a lost opportunity.
Paul Ryan’s official Republican response was responsible and adult with no Kenneth the Pageboy-style embarrassments. He was sincere and direct, focused on dealing with the deficit and the debt, even while setting out a series of principles that extended to everything this side of mom and apple pie.
Michele Bachmann’s self-appointed Tea Party response deserves a longer treatment later. But one line stood out to me, as she even-handedly recounted our recent political history: “Two years ago…We wondered whether the president would cut spending, reduce the deficit and implement real job-creating policies.” I recall that Bachmann was actually wondering whether Barack Obama had ‘anti-American views” at the time – but hey, it’s almost the same thing.
People have been asking whether the GOP has a Michele Bachmann problem, but I think that misses a larger point – the Tea Party has a Michele Bachmann problem.
Next year, I’d imagine that Dennis Kucinich will demand equal time for a far-left rebuttal of the president. This prospect will be similarly cheered by the White House. The adult-in-the-room strategy only benefits by comparison to the extremes.
“What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow,” as the president said. This was not a classic speech by Obama or State of the Union standards. But it conscientiously set about establishing a tone and a direction for the next two years – restoring America’s economic competitiveness through modest policy outreach. We know from experience that divided government does not have to mean gridlock. Now we’ll see if official Washington recognizes that as well.
John Avlon, a former chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is the author of the  Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America and Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics.  He is also a CNN contributor and columnist for The Daily Beast, where this piece first appeared.

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.

The SOTU Experts Speak: Jeff Shesol

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.

Today's State of the SOTU

Okay, fellow junkies, speech day has arrived.  We'll do our best to make your last pre-fix a good a one.
  • What happens when word nerds go high tech? You get a State of the Union word cloud, naturally.  The Daily Beast did us the favor of analyzing the language of the top 20 SOTUs, using a program called Wordle, as a way to chart and analyze the dominant historical themes of the past century.  If you're not familiar with the cloud concept, the Beast explains thusly: "Word clouds take a chunk of text—in this case State of the Union addresses—and magnify the most-used words while minimizing the least used, providing, quite literally, a new way to look at the State of the Union address" 
  • Speaking of text and tech, the social media mavens over at Mashable provide a guide to watching the SOTU online. Why opt for the Web watching over TV?   "[O]nline viewing might give you a more interesting and informative experience than TV viewing alone," Mashable explains.  "For example, there’s the White House’s official portal, which delivers a unique and media-rich experience. With’s official 'enhanced viewing experience,' you’ll be able to see data displayed on charts and graphs as the President speaks. For those who favor commentary, PBS’s NewsHour is hosting an Annotated State of the Union in partnership with UStream (here’s an example from 2010). This interactive feature will bring 'analysis during and after the president’s address by NewsHour correspondents and experts on a variety of topics.' NewsHour’s UStream video will also be embeddable."
  • Once you've settled on where to watch, what should you be watching for?  The New York Times Caucus blog posted a fairly thorough viewing guide today that is suitable for junkies and casual followers alike.  Number one on the list: the looming clash on spending.  "Mr. Obama’s aides have hinted for days that the president will call for a new wave of investment to spur job growth and keep the country competitive with its global competitors. But how much spending? And on what? How will he make the case in the face of Republican opposition to what they view as moving in exactly the wrong direction. Among the unknowns Tuesday night is whether Mr. Obama will endorse specific provisions of his commission to reduce the nation’s debt, and how much he will say about the need to confront reform of Social Security and Medicare. Doing neither will invite criticism of his commitment to the country’s long-term fiscal health."
  • If you don't know much about this year's Republican responder, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, check out this stage-setting piece on The Hill website.  It charts the young Budget Committee chairman's rapid rise to Beltway fame, explores the potential impact of his debut on the national stage tonight, and surveys a few political experts on how Ryan can avoid the pitfalls of past SOTU follow-uppers.  The consensus take: "Stick with broad themes; don’t be negative; and smile and look like Ronald Reagan."
  • If you can't get enough of the SOTU seating stories, today's Washington Post is (ahem) overcrowded with them.  There's a handy guide to the most interesting bipartisan odd couples; leading the pairing pack are Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), the dashing duo that some have already dubbed SOTU prom king and queen.  There's also a primer on the honored guests who are likely to get presidential shoutouts in tonight's speech.  Lastly, there's the latest scuttlebut about the possibility of several Supreme Court justices skipping this year's address, which is putting a partisan damper on the bipartisan momentum of the moment.
  • With this being the Super Bowl of speechwriting, we could not help but take note of (and some pride in) today's news that our friend Andrei Cherny has been named head of the Arizona Democratic Party.  Cherny, a former White House speechwriter, ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer last fall but impressed many with his idea-driven campaign.

The SOTU Experts Speak: Lisa Schiffren

The State of the Union is…unsettled 
By Lisa Schiffren
Were I advising president Obama on his SOTU tomorrow, I’d would do what partisan political advisors are paid to do: come up with a list of accomplishments – take credit for anything good and extrapolate it out beyond reason;  add many rhetorical flourishes and a long list of policies and projects  designed to tickle the fancies of  his biggest constituent groups.  I would have him discuss, in sober tones, the national debt, which no one likes. I’d advise him to sound forceful, but not be too specific about addressing it.  I’d claim many benefits from the stimulus, real or otherwise.  And I would skirt the problem of ongoing high unemployment by claiming it could be worse.  That’s what his advisers advise, I surmise, because he has said all of that since being elected.
The Democratic anti-me I would not resist admonitions to civility and co-operation between the parties, “after Tucson.”   There’d be a clever joke about the new seating arrangements.  Given the election results, I’d toss a few bones (big, but hollow) across the aisle, though harping on the evils of the deficit would need to count as one of those…because core Obama supporters don’t want to see him surrender to the GOP, no matter what the reality.  And you can never tell with those fickle independents. Still, I’d be confident that the mainstream media won’t remind voters that in the end, none of his rhetorical concessions to the other side, in any previous speech, have materialized.
But I am not a Democratic advisor.  I am a conservative citizen, of a certain age, who has heard a few too many SOTU speeches.  As a rhetorical matter, they’re boring, because it’s hard to put a lot of heart in lists of policies.  So please keep it short, or I will simply read it, losing the effect of the President’s dramatic talents.  In general  President Obama talks too much. He speaks well.  But after hundreds of speeches he is overexposed. He gains nothing with the voters who sent all those Democrats packing in November, by dragging this out – even if he delivers a knockout performance.  We are tired of his words. And all this build-up, because the press has nothing to write about, isn’t helping.  We the people have lives of our own; they are harder than they were, and this political spectacle has gotten old.
As a citizen affected by the economy, the uncertain economic future our children face, the dismal performance of a great many of the institutions upon which we rely, I want to hear a plan to cut debt and grow jobs.  Real jobs.  Not government jobs.. This requires a list of programs the president is going to cut. Real programs that add up to real money.  Plus a few symbolic ones, like NPR.  He should do what most Americans are doing: cut the luxuries. Because nice as it is to spend money on the arts, tertiary level social services or esoteric  social science research – we can’t afford it.  
Tell us how you’re going to make the government services we need, work.   Education is always at the top of that list – but we’ve increased spending exponentially in the past 30 years, without much to show.  Now what? 
Here is a word I don’t want to hear: Investment.  All Americans know that you call it “investment” when you want to buy something you can’t justify financially: the McMansion; the fancy education; the state of the art electronics….  that’s how we got here.  We should be done with bailouts and “stimulus spending” by any name. 
I’d feel better if I believed that Obama understands that high taxes kill jobs, and big spending necessitates high taxes. But I’m not holding my breath.  I’d like to hear that he is willing to revisit the health care bill and change the problematic parts.  But I need to see that start within two weeks, or it gets him nothing.  
 I want to hear how well we have done in Iraq; and what the plan is for Afghanistan.  I’d like to hear the new, realistic endgame.  Because we are not leaving this summer and everyone know it. And what about Pakistan?  Important allies or not, why are they still subsidizing our enemies among the Afghans? What is your national security apparatus going to do about it? And Iran?  How much weaker can we afford to look – or be?
One last thing.  “Can’t we all be get along here?” was sadly funny when Rodney Brown said it, in the course of mass riots.   When I hear politicians speak about civility and comity between parties, I want to toss my cookies.  We have two parties at such sharp variance because there are two mutually exclusive, competing views of how our country should be governed. That’s good.  It means something when voters choose.
For citizens, this hostility is far better than those eras when Congress was a gentlemen’s club where everyone got along, cut deals and horse-traded our taxes and principles away by day, and drank, played poker and went whoring after hours, while Democrats were in control and Republicans were comfortable being submissive.  Man up, guys. Sit on your own side and don’t be afraid to ‘boo.’.  If you cannot see how ridiculous and adolescent this mixed seating gimmick is, imagine what a moderately articulate member of any party in the House of Commons would say about having other party seat mates, let alone ‘dates.’ Blush.
I am very sorry that a non-political lunatic with a long history of imbalance shot a congresswoman two weeks ago. She sounds like a great person and I, like 99.9% of the nation, wish her a speedy recovery.  But that incident had no wider significance. It was not political. And it is not a reason for the winners of the recent election to embrace those whose political actions were soundly rejected.  And it is sickening to see national leaders attempt to use it for political gain.  So I don’t want to see Rep. Gifford’s doctors trotted out for show or hear her extolled as an icon. She is a victim. It has no greater meaning.
I am pretty sure that the president’s speech will disregard absolutely everything I have just written, plus all the other stuff I might have added.  Whatever he says, I’m entirely sure he’ll just go on doing all of the lefty things an entire generation of “progs” has dreamed about, till he’s thrown out on his ear, a moment that can’t come too soon.
Lisa Schiffren, who formerly wrote speeches for Vice President Dan Quayle, is a freelance speechwriter in New York City.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Today's State of the SOTU

We've reached the penultimate day before what political speech pros think of as the ultimate pen day, and the speculation and desegregation talk will shortly give way to the speech itself.  But in the meantime, he's your second-to-last daily fix of SOTU news and views.
  • In its lead story this morning, Politico reached a pre-verdict on the speech: ambiance will trump substance.  "In his speech, the president will talk about jobs, the deficit and the future of the nation’s troubled economy, but most of the attention is going to be on the theatrics in the room," the paper reports.  "It will be a night defined by the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and murder of six bystanders in Tucson less than a month ago and the highly public soul-searching that has played out since then on the need for greater civility in political debate" 
  • Speaking of the Tuscon shootings, we learned today that Giffords intern Daniel Hernandez -- whom President Obama has already declared a hero for rushing to his boss' aid after she was shot -- will be a guest of honor on Tuesday night in the First Lady's box.  On his birthday, no less.  
  • The USA Today editorial board, joining the rush of free advice givers, took a crack at penning a condensed version of the SOTU the paper's editors would like the president to give.  They recommend a singular focus on the dire threat posed by the national debt.  "If we are to prevail — and we will — we must act in the spirit of our forebears, whose sacrifices bequeathed us this extraordinary nation. We must, as they did, face the threat squarely, and then — together — join in defeating it.
  • Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich suggests the president should take a quite different economic tact and focus the country on the two increasingly divergent and unequal economies that the recession has exposed. "He should point out that the U.S. economy is now twice as large as it was in 1980 but the real median wage has barely budged. Most of the benefits of economic growth have gone to the top. In the late 1970s, the richest 1 percent of Americans got about 9 percent of total income. By the start of the Great Recession they received more than 23 percent. Wealth is even more concentrated.  This is the heart of our problem. Most Americans no longer have the purchasing power to get the economy moving again. Once the debt bubble burst, they were stranded." 
  • Think you know your SOTU trivia? Well, the Christian Science Monitor is giving you a chance to measure your skills, via a seven question vox pop quiz.

The SOTU Experts Speak: John Avlon

Obama Should Propose Entitlement Reform
by John Avlon
President Obama would really floor Republicans—and snare more independents—by calling for entitlement reform during his State of the Union address. He’d also do more than budget cuts to bring down the deficit and debt.
The State of the Union is the Super Bowl for policy wonks. The pre-game analysis is a time for armchair-quarterback fantasies and hopes that a suggested play might actually get picked up by the coach.
Here’s my long-ball call: President Obama should pull a Nixon in China and propose entitlement reform.
On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss this policy proposal as absurd; after all, Obama presided over $1.2 trillion in new spending in his first 100 days. He accumulated more debt than every president from George Washington to George W. Bush—combined.
But Obama always argued that the spending was an emergency measure. Two years ago, the U.S. economy was in free fall. Now it has stabilized and even shows some signs of growth. But the $14 trillion U.S. debt is now 95 percent of our GDP, a fact that casts a serious shadow over the future strength of our civilization. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, calls the national debt “our biggest national security threat.”
Bending the cost curve through entitlement reform would do more than budget cuts to bring down the long-term deficit and debt, without gutting short-term economic growth. It would also go to the heart of the new talking point about economic competitiveness, because the world’s largest debtor nation cannot remain the world’s sole superpower indefinitely.
Here’s the best part about this modest proposal—the president has backed it before.
Five days before his inauguration, Obama spoke to The Washington Post editorial board about his desire to tackle entitlement reform, specifically Social Security and Medicare reform.
“The real problem with our long-term deficit actually has to do with our entitlement obligations,” he said in the audio recording of the editorial board meeting, available on The Washington Post website. “As soon as the economic recovery takes place then we need to bend the curve and figure out how we get federal spending on a more sustainable path.”
In the interview, Obama offered the prospect of a “grand bargain” to begin long-term deficit and debt reduction, through entitlement reform. “Social Security, we can solve,” he said. “The big problem is Medicare, which is unsustainable...We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else’s.”
That time is now. With divided government, dealing with deficits and debt is a practical and political necessity. Republicans will be floored if Obama proposes serious entitlement reform. Independents would continue their 15-point swing toward the president documented by CNN over the past month. It would be an act of political judo on par with Southern Democrat Lyndon Johnson backing civil rights legislation, anti-communist Richard Nixon opening up relations with Red China, and Bill Clinton backing welfare reform. By seizing the center, each of these bold presidential actions help depolarize a policy debate and led to tangible political benefits. They helped move America not left or right, but forward.
Obama’s opening the door to entitlement reform would have the same effect. And he could build on the work of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission, which secured support from conservatives and liberal senators including Tom Coburn and Dick Durbin for proposals like increasing the retirement age for Social Security to 69 by 2075, with exemptions for manual labor. Add to that an adjustment like pegging benefits for those currently under age 55 to inflation instead of wages, and the costs looming as baby boomers retire would go down dramatically with comparatively little real pain. All that is needed is some political courage backed by presidential leadership.
“Bill Clinton tried to tee up a serious debate on entitlements in the late ’90s, but Republicans had impeachment on their minds,” Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, told me. “Now that fiscal responsibility is all the rage, President Obama ought to pick up where Clinton left off and challenge both parties to join him in fixing Medicare and Social Security. Besides, the baby boomers now are actually surging into retirement, and their zooming health and retirement costs are the real driver of big spending in Washington.”
This action also would reaffirm Obama’s core support among younger voters in advance of 2012. After all, the entitlement-driven deficits and debt are nothing less than generational theft. We are going to be left cleaning up the baby boomers’ mess, a smorgasbord of unfunded mandates that are already bankrupting entire states. Millennial generation websites like We Can’t Pay That Tab make the generational case for dealing with deficits and debt now instead of passing the buck. But those in need of a stark reality check should take a look at the U.S. Debt Clock, which illustrates the $127,000 current cost of debt per taxpayer.
Proposing entitlement reform will take courage. President Bush attempted Social Security reform and failed in the face of opposition from the left. To be sure, there are other places to seek savings as well—cutting pork barrel projects the Pentagon doesn’t want but Congress continues to fund, as well as scaling back subsidies for ethanol that we can’t afford right now. The administration has shown a renewed seriousness about fiscal responsibility, appointing Clinton alumnus Bill Daley as chief of staff and Gene Sperling as director of the National Economic Council. The announcement that the deficit commission’s executive director, Bruce Reed, will serve as Vice President Biden’s chief of staff and senior policy adviser heightens the new atmosphere of policy seriousness on the essential level of personnel.
It would be an act of political judo on par with Johnson backing civil rights legislation, Nixon opening up relations with China, and Clinton backing welfare reform.
Obama’s audacious move during the State of the Union would reignite a spirit of generational responsibility that has been absent in our politics for too long. It would shake up political fault lines and forge new common ground, helping to prove that divided government does not need to mean gridlock. Its strengthening of the president’s prospects in 2012 while strengthening the economy in the long run are almost incidental benefits. The president should follow through on his initial impulse before taking the oath of office: “What we have done is kicked this can down the road. We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further,” he said then. That is true now more than ever. 
John Avlon, a former chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is the author of the  Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America and Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics.  He is also a CNN contributor and columnist for The Daily Beast, where this piece first appeared.

The SOTU Experts Speak: David Murray

Why One Speech Pro Resists SOTU Duty
By David Murray

The only people who dread the State of the Union speech more than those who have to write it is the editor of Vital Speeches. (That’s me.)

Why? Partly because I find speech analysis wearying to write and read. (Ironic, I know. It’s taken me years, as editor of Speechwriter’s Newsletter and now Vital Speeches, to realize to my great relief: Nobody is waiting to hear what I think. It’s not just the speech-savvy Vital Speeches followers who don’t need my opinion. It’s everybody who saw the speech. That’s the singular beauty of a speech: The speaker speaks, and the audience members decide for themselves whether the speech was true or not. It’s not Ulysses!)

But mostly I resist SOTU duty because the SOTU is not a speech. It is, as it originally was, an annual report to Congress. Only by now, it has become a solicitous nod to special interests, a dig at enemies, a smarmy salute to four carefully chosen American heroes who should be examples to us all. And yet, the speech must be written, and it must be read out loud, and it must be listened to and reported on.

Want to make it a speech? Easy: Shorten it to a 15-minute fireside chat about one crucial subject and telling everybody the rest of it's in the PowerPoint deck at

But as it is, analysis of the SOTU is best done by political inside-baseball types who can decode the thing.

As for the editor of Vital Speeches: Like last year, I’ll be watching the SOTU, and writing about it.

But I won’t be serious, and I won’t be sober.

Pull up a barstool. First round’s on me.

David Murray is the editor of Vital Speeches of the Day. He'll be live blogging the SOTU on his personal blog, Writing Boots (where this piece first appeared).

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Today's State of the SOTU

Two days to the big speech, too much SOTU chatter to keep up with (especially with two huge football games fighting for our attention).  But we did our best to sort through it all and separate the speech wonk wheat from the chaff.  Here are the most interesting nuggets we came across today.
  • You don't have to wonder any more about what the prime focus of the speech will be.  Channeling the new media mojo of the 2008 campaign, Team Obama released a video preview through its political arm, Organizing for America.  To no one's surprise, the president will be concentrating on jobs and economic competitiveness, with a heavy dose of innovation promotion and deficit reduction.
  • What other issues will make the cut?  The Washington Post has a behind the scenes peak at the furious efforts of a broad array of interest groups to shape those decisions and win the what's in game.  One of the biggest players is one of this administration's biggest targets: the oil industry.
  •  Speaking of new media, Team Obama has big plans to take the conversation that the president starts Tuesday night online and use the Web to directly drive its message to voters for the rest of the week.  The White House will be making several top policy advisors available to answer questions Tuesday after after the speech, via Twitter.  On Wednesday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs will be conducting a live Twitter-view, taking questions from the public.  And on Thursday, the President will be doing a live interview via YouTube.  You can find the full rundown here.
  • With all the hubbub surrounding the bipartisan seating push, the Los Angeles Times decided to dig into the origins of partisan segregation.  The result is useful primer to anyone who has been wondering about the hows and whys of this informal tradition now under the public microscope.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Today's State of the SOTU

More and more interesting SOTU tidbits to share this fine chilly day with our fellow speech junkies.  Here are the highlights so far.
  • ABC's The Note offers some historical catnip for speechers and preachers alike -- a compendium of notable biblical references in past State of the Unions, starting with FDR's address in 1936.  One of our favorites is Reagan's nod to Timothy in 1984: "Let us be sure that those who come after will say of us in our time, that in our time we did everything that could be done. We finished the race; we kept them free; we kept the faith." 
  • The Washington Post got a wide range of esteemed business leaders, and policy works, and speech pros to offer their thoughts on the topics President Obama should focus on in this year's speech.  There are lot of votes for talking tough on the federal deficit and debt.  But former Clinton speechwriter and current Punditwire poohbah Bob Lehrman suggests a contrarian tack: They save lives every day - by fighting a forest fire in California, helping planes avoid collision or interpreting a new law that makes food safe. Who? The federal workforce. The Republican Study Group's recent spending-cut proposal targets those workers - by firing 3,000 food inspectors, for example. Apparently, the way to create jobs is to cut them. So while the State of the Union address will clearly be about jobs and the economy, President Obama should defend those workers. . . [He] should announce that he will not accept draconian cuts that take a meat axe to the federal workforce. "We're about putting Americans to work," he should say, "not putting these brave workers out to pasture."
  • Not to be outdone, the New York Times also posted a survey of Beltway expert types from the left, right and center on what President Obama should say.  Sadly, they didn't include one political speechwriter.  Among those who did get asked to comment, the award for unfettered optimism goes to Tea Party Patriot coordinators Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin: “Based on his newfound understanding and respect for the views of the majority of Americans, Tea Party Patriots hopes that he will encourage repeal of Obamacare in the Senate, and then sign the bill and begin to engage in true bipartisan negotiations to solve the nation’s health care problems.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

Today's State of the SOTU (Part II)

Here are a few more SOTU-related items we came across today that we thought were worth sharing.
  • At the apparent request of Esquire magazine, former Bush speechwriter and noted conservative pundit David Frum took the liberty of composing a full rough draft of the speech that he'd like President Obama to give next week. The men's mag sets up this rare act of partisan cross-pollination as a thought experiment -- "one conservative Republican's attempt to imagine what a liberal Democratic president should say if he wished in his next State of the Union to speak to the whole nation, adversaries as well as supporters, independents as well as partisans." It's well worth reading as a piece of speech craft either way.  You can find the full text here.
  • Speaking of former Bushies, Matt Dowd (who served as a pollster and strategist for George W.) did an analysis for ABC News looking at the likely impact of this year's State of the Union on President Obama's standing.  His conclusion, judging from the historical record: not much.  "An analysis of Gallup polling data over the last 35 years reveals that the State of the Union has little to no effect on presidential approval ratings." He goes on:
"President Clinton fared the best -- on average his approval rose a very modest 3 percentage points after his annual addresses. Surprisingly, all other presidents' approval ratings experienced slight declines on average. President George H. W. Bush suffered an average drop of 4 percentage points, while Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush saw average declines of a single point.   More remarkable: President Reagan, arguably the greatest communicator of the bunch, was unable to move public opinion through these widely-watched and covered speeches. President Obama's first State of the Union yielded a similar result. The polling data showed no impact, even though he often is lauded as a superb speaker.
  • It was announced today that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), the conservative's go-to policy wonk of the moment, will deliver the Republican response to this year's SOTU.  He may want to read the story Politico posted today about the delicate challenge of following up -- and in many cases, mopping up -- after the President dominates the stage.  Our friend Jeff Shesol, a partner at West Wing Writers and a great writer of political history, sums up the fate that awaits Ryan best: “It’s a dog of a speech that diminishes almost anyone who gives it. It is apparently an honor, but it may feel to the speech-giver like some form of divine punishment.”

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.

Today's State of the SOTU

With the State of the Union now just four days out, the pre-speech buzz is really picking up. Here are some of the developments and discussion we're following.
  • The bipartisan seating push is almost reaching critical mass. There has been no official desegregation decree from Congressional leaders, but a steadily growing number of Members and delegations are taking matters into their own hands. Likening the rush of bipartisan dates being scheduled to prom night, the Wall Street Journal reports that moderate Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) have made plans to sit together, as are Illinois Senators Dick Durbin (D) and Mark Kirk (R). Going a step further, the entire Colorado House and Senate delegations -- led by Senator Mark Udall, who has been the driving force behind  desegregation -- has committed to watch as a group.
  • The bipartisan seating push has gotten enough currency to warrant its own New York Times editorial. As the headline ("Beyond the Happy Visuals") suggests, the Grey Lady is not exactly enthusiastic about the notion. "It’s a lovely idea, intended to show that ideological divisions do not require personal rancor. But it is essentially a gesture to the cameras, and it should not obscure what remains a wide and fundamentally deep aisle between the parties."
  • Politics Daily has come up with an interesting way to set the context for this year's SOTU, offering a dissection of the state of the public's mind on the eve of the big speech and a summation of what lawmakers would hear from their constituents if they were the ones speechifying. Our favorite: "We also don't like the way you talk to each other and deal with each other, and frankly, we're tired of listening to it. Watching you is like spending a day with Frank and Estelle Costanza. 
  • Turning to the speech itself, NPR reports today that President Obama is under some pressure to make a big, debate-changing statement about the economy. "He knows and the American people know that we're not out of the woods economically yet — that we have an enormous challenge of growth of jobs on the one hand and of long-term fiscal stability on the other. And that is going to put pressure on the president to go big and go long," says former Clinton Domestic Policy Advisor Bill Galston.  
  • If you're looking for a little comic relief on speech night, and Wolf Blitzer just doesn't cut it, you're now in luck.  Comedy Central announced it will be live blogging the event.  You can find the funny business -- at least the intentional stuff -- here.  Just remember to come back to the Gotham Live Tweetchat.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Around the Word

Today we're looking at words and the spaces between them:

"If you type two spaces after a period you're doing it wrong," writes Farhad Manjoo, striking fear in the hearts of double-spacers everywhere. In Slate, Manjoo traces the origins of our collective error back to the manual typewriter. "To accommodate that machine's shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we all still type like we do." But while the Chicago Manual of Style, the MLA Style Manual, and "every modern typographer" agree that one space between sentences is the way to go, even Manjoo admits that the custom is arbitrary. Still, he argues, it's no more arbitrary that double spacing, it's more aesthetic, and--despite what some double-spacers might have you believe--there are "no studies or any other evidence proving that single spaces improve readability." How do you handle your spacing? Anyone ready to jump to the defense of the double space?

From now until February 5th, the Oxford English Dictionary Online is celebrating their redesign by offering full access for free--and you don't need to be in search of a definition to take advantage. suggests meandering through the history of words by browsing OED's "lengthy etymologies."  The Boston Globe's Jan Freeman similarly attests to the fun of etymological adventure, but points out that the real gift of the new OED Online is that it's "easy to look for things you may not have known you wanted." For the next two weeks, you can log on for free at using "trynewoed" as both the user name and password. But if you get addicted, you aren't necessarily doomed to shell out the $300 annual fee--a library card from an institution that subscribes is all you need.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Feautured Writer: Jeff Kreisler

“It’s either a curse or a good thing about my career," Gotham Jokewriter Jeff Kreisler tells the Princeton Alumni Weekly, "that I have a lot of projects that are in various stages of failure.” This week's issue features a profile of the lawyer-cum-political satirist, whose comedy career--all joking aside--is going well enough that his J.D.'s getting dusty. Check out the full profile here.

Today's State of the SOTU

Here's a couple SOTU-related items from around the Web this morning that we thought you speech junkies might find interesting:
  • If you are curious to see how the State of the Union is viewed from abroad, check out this educational primer on the speech that the BBC posted for its international audience.  It's a nice introduction to both the pomp and the circumstance, featuring a fair amount of historical background and highlights.  Come to think of it, more than a few Americans might learn something from it.
  • The push for bipartisan seating at this year's speech picked up a big endorsement, with ABC News reporting that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is getting behind Senator Udall's desegregation plan.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

SOTU Caption Contest

The Washington Post is offering you speech junkies another creative outlet to sound off on this year's State of the Union.  Longtime Post cartoonist Tom Toles decided to launch his first ever caption contest around a SOTU drawing he's done of President Obama with an under-the-sea backdrop, inviting readers to fill in the blank with their own clever description.  If you're feeling inspired, you can enter here.

Today's State of the SOTU

As we noted yesterday, this January has featured little of the traditional build-up to and buzz around the State of the Union.  One meaty exception to this exceptionally quiet SOTU season is the special issue the Washington Monthly put out around the New Year — and before the Tuscon shootings — offering the president advice from a select group of bipartisan experts. 

It's easily the most substantive discussion we have seen yet about what Obama should say next week and we'd encourage you speech junkies to check it out.  Among the more notable tipsters:  Howard Dean, former Clinton Domestic Policy Advisor Bill Galston (a Gotham favorite), former Reagan and Bush economic advisor Bruce Bartlett, Harvard professor Theda Skocpol, and Georgetown historian Michael Kazin.

One of the most interesting and counter-intuitive recommendations comes from Gotham friend and former Clinton national security speechwriter Heather Hurlburt (now the executive director of the National Security Network).  She argues that instead of following convention during tough economic times and burying defense issues at the end of the speech, the president should lead with them —and frame our domestic challenges as a national security threat.
The military is now the most respected institution in American life, and by far the most respected part of government. But relatively few Americans recognize that military planners at the Pentagon consider “domestic issues” to be front-burner strategic concerns.For a pragmatic—even progressive—approach on issues from education to energy to deficit reduction, they may be your greatest ally. But the American people won’t know that unless you tell them.

What they do know is that we are fighting two protracted wars abroad, contending with a nuclear North Korea and a nuclear-aspiring Iran, and seeming to stand still while China and others enjoy an economic and strategic surge. Domestically, they know we are struggling to create new jobs, succumbing to a spirit of lowered expectations, and mired in an era of divisive politics. But those are just the immediate-term realities that we face as Americans. The public looks to you for a way to see beyond them with a vision of the future—and the part of our government that has the resources and the remit to think most rigorously about the long view is our military. In your speech, Mr. President, you should use the military’s hard-nosed assessments of the future to bolster your own vision, and to inspire Congress and the American people to take decisive action.
Think this could work?  How about the other ideas the magazine is promoting?  We'd love to hear from the speechwriting community about the pros — and especially the cons —of these rhetorical recommendations.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Today's State of the SOTU

Over the next few days we will surely be spending a lot of time discussing the impact of the Tuscon shootings, which continues to dominate the national political conversation, on this year's State of the Union Address.  Will President Obama build on his widely-applauded address at last week's memorial service and make civility and cooperation the centerpiece themes of his speech to Congress?  What symbolic and tangible olive branches will he offer to the Republicans that now control the House?  Who from Arizona may join the First Lady as the signature First Guest in the president's box?

But we don't have to wait for the speech to be delivered see how profoundly the tragic events in Tuscon have already changed the trajectory of THE political event of the year in Washington.  Usually by this time in January, there have already been a couple weeks of escalating speculating around likely focal points and new nuggets and at least a few selective leaks and/or trial balloons around new policies and/or programs.  Yet so far there has been almost no noticeable pre-speech build-up this month.  And what little buzz there is not about what the president will announce or denounce, but where his friends and foes will be sitting.

That's right: in case you missed it, the hot SOTU story of the moment is the growing interest in a proposal being championed by Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) to suspend the normal practice of partisan seating and standing.  This idea picked up a fair amount of momentum over the weekend after it was jointly endorsed on Meet the Press by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Coburn (R-OK), who promised to listen next to each other even if Udall's desegregation proposal wasn't formally adopted.

We're curious to hear your thoughts on this notion -- in particular, the practical import for the speech itself.  Will it substantially change the atmospherics in the room — and how the speech is received at home —if Congress stands and claps as one for once?

State of the Union Blog-A-Thon (The Sequel)

Now that the political class is finally beginning to turn its attention to the State of the Union address, scheduled for January 25, we thought it was time to kick off our second annual SOTU Blog-A-Thon.

As we did last year, we will be running a special series here on the BloGG over the next week previewing the president's big speech — or as we like to call it, the speechwriters' Super Bowl.

We have invited speechwriting pros of all political persuasions to weigh in with their thoughts on what President Obama should or shouldn't say in his second SOTU, offer some historical perspective, or just join in the general kibbitzing.  We'll be posting their responses throughout this week and up until speech time next Tuesday.

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.

Gentlemen (and women), start your pundicating.

P.S.  We will also be again hosting a live running commentary during the SOTU on Twitter and Facebook.  Check back next Monday, the day before the speech, for information on how you can be part of that discussion.  Or feel free to visit our Facebook page any time for the details.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Reviewing Obama's Tuscon Speech

President Obama's touching address at the memorial service for the victims of the Tuscon shootings is winning rave bipartisan reviews from political analysts and speechwriting pros alike. 

You can find a good cross-section of (mostly) hosannas over at The Daily Beast, led by Gotham friend John Avlon, a former Giuliani speechwriter turned CNN pundit.  Avlon, an independent who has often disagreed with Obama, praised the president in this case for deftly rising above the partisan squabbling this tragedy has set off and tapping into our common humanity.
He defied the folks who thought that any mention of civility would be polarizing itself by taking on the partisan blame game directly from the increasingly familiar (and needed) perspective of the adult in the room: "At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized… it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

But to my ears, the finest section of the speech came at the end, when the president came up with a novel spin on the obligatory nod to the Gettysburg Address at the heart of all eulogies: that we highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.

It returning to the life story of 9-year-old Christina Green, he largely sidestepped the ready-made metaphor of her birth on 9/11. Instead, he chose to focus on Christina’s budding enthusiasm for public service, which led her to run for student council and drew her to the congresswoman’s meet-and-greet that day:

“She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted,” the president said. “I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it.” And then the line that captured his passion as a president and a parent to a surge of applause: “All of us—we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”
It was particularly striking to see many of Obama's critics on the right note how the Democratic president hit almost all the right notes Wednesday night.  One of the most generous tributes came from another Gotham friend, Pete Wehner, a leading conservative speechwriter and commentator who has often been critical of Obama's rhetoric.  Writing on Commentary, Wehner called it one of Obama's best speeches as president.
The president resisted the temptation to offer simplistic explanations for the existence of evil or how to ameliorate grief. He used language that was at times elegant and evocative, including lines like these:

“Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

His use of Scripture was appropriate and effective. And the president used the occasion to essentially close an ugly and unfortunate chapter of this debate.

Last night in Tucson, Barack Obama resurrected the best qualities from his 2008 campaign. On a difficult occasion, he showed grace and reminded us of the power of words to unify and uplift. More than at any other point in his presidency, Mr. Obama was president of all the people and spoke beautifully for them.
UPDATE: Another review we came across that is worth checking out comes courtesy of Bob Lehrman, a former Al Gore speechwriter and co-founder of Punditwire, over on Ragan, who rated Obama's address "an immensely skillful speech, written, delivered, and orchestrated with equal skill."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Around the Word

The final word on 2010 was handed down from the American Dialect Society this weekend at the Wyndham Hotel in Pittsburgh, where the cabal of linguists lexicographers, etymologists, grammarians, historians, researchers, writers, authors, editors, professors, university students, and independent scholars crowned app ("there's an app for that") the 2010 Word of the Year. It beat out fellow nominees nom (either a noun or an interjection referring to delicious food), junk (junk shot, junk status, don't touch my junk), Wikileaks (a proper noun, common noun, and verb), and trend (a verb expressing a "burst of online buzz").

What will happen to your tweets after you die? How about your blog? Your flickr account? Have you got a plan for your Second Life avatar? "Increasingly we’re not leaving a record of life by culling and stowing away physical journals or shoeboxes of letters and photographs for heirs or the future," says The New York Times Magazine, pointing out that before long we'll be looking at pictures of Grandma's girlhood on her Facebook page. But now that we're all accrueing "masses of life-affirming digital stuff," who will execute our e-legacies--and to what end?

When you're feeling uncertain, insecure, or--dare we say it?--genuinely unprepared, the temptation to apologize to your audience is powerful. It's also, says The Eloquent Woman's Denise Graveline, an impulse to be avoided. "I was going to address the points that the earlier panelist made," "I wanted to show you photos of our lab, but...," and "I really didn't have enough time to prepare, so..." delute your message and undercut your authority. Instead, Graveline gives tips for putting a positive spin on day-of hitches, from broken power projecters to fellow panelists that steal your points.