Friday, January 27, 2012

The State of the State of the Union (Part II)

By Dan Gerstein

After taking note on Tuesday of the near total absence of pre–State of the Union hype this year, we canvassed a number of our fellow speech pros to get a bead on what was behind this unusual lack of buzz. In particular, we wanted to know whether the ho-humness of the 2012 edition was an indication that our Super Bowl was losing its mojo—or whether it was just a matter of today's political moment.

The consensus take: it was the circumstances, not the pomp.

Most of the pros we consulted pointed first to the circus attraction/distraction of the Republican presidential campaign. Or, as Vital Speeches guru David Murray explained: "Because Newt Gingrich isn’t going to have the chance to stand next to the president smirking, and he doesn’t get to punch the president in the face. The politics-consuming public is addicted to the violence of these twice-weekly Republican brawls, and the prospect of watching the president shadowbox for an hour—meh. And then a thoughtful, articulate televised response by Mitch Daniels? Please."

Former Clinton speechwriter Heather Hurlburt said she wasn't surprised that this SOTU did not generate much heat, pointing to the all the political and policy news that was breaking in the run-up to speech night and sucking up most of the commentariat's attention. "Consider that this week you had the South Carolina primary Saturday, the GOP debate Monday, the SOTU Tuesday, a GOP debate Thursday, and the rollout of the first Pentagon budget cut in a decade Thursday. Oh, and a carrier sailing through the Straits of Hormuz," Hurlburt added. "It’s like holding the Super Bowl during the Olympics."

Another significant factor, our pros noted, was the White House's conscious strategy of downplaying this year's speech and not leaking out new policy tidbits to pump up the Beltway hype machine. Again, D.C.-based pro Michael Freeman said, this was predictable, given the current budgetary and political environment, which is not exactly hospitable to buzz-worthy ideas. "Obama cannot, no matter how determined he may be, get an initiative of any meaningful scope through this Congress," Freeman explained. "If he offers ideas of magnitude, the words are hollow because the proposals can't go anywhere. If he sticks to things he can get done, we're in Bill Clinton V-Chip territory. Yawn."

But our experts did see one troubling larger trend at work: the corrosive effect of the widespread anger at and frustration with Washington. "Cynicism is carrying the day," said Freeman, who served as chief speechwriter at the Social Security Administration. "Congress's approval ratings are nearing single digits. Obama's are mired below 50. There's no confidence that anything said in the SOTU is going to dramatically change the state of play in America." Added Hurlburt: "Not just the SOTU, but do all the performance rituals of Washington matter less to a country and media that sees them all as equally compromised, empty, and meaningless?  Maybe."

Gerstein is President of Gotham Ghostwriters and a regular political analyst on Fox News.

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