BIG DOG POLITICS

How Can Obama Get His Mojo Back In the State of the Union? Study Bill Clinton

No other recent president combined substance, empathy and a zest for the job like Bill Clinton did when he gave his State of the Union address. Obama should study up.

01.19.15 10:45 AM ET

This weekend, President Barack Obama is perfecting his State of the Union address, to be delivered on Tuesday. Just as basketball players watch clips of old stars like Dr. J. or Julius Erving—Obama’s boyhood hero—the president might want to download President Bill Clinton’s addresses. I would particularly recommend Clinton’s 1998 and 1999 speeches. Perhaps by watching this political virtuoso, Obama can get his speechmaking mojo back.

As a rare president who enjoyed both politicking and policy-making, Clinton loved delivering the State of the Union Address. Watching him speak to a packed Congress was like watching Barbra Streisand sing, Michael Jackson moonwalk, Tiger Woods golf, or Steve Jobs pitch a product. For Clinton it was New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, Commencement Day, and the Fourth of July all wrapped in one. Each January, he framed a new agenda. He catalogued—and boasted about—the old year’s accomplishments. He charted a detailed path infused with a broader purpose. And he celebrated America in the reddest, whitest, and bluest terms. 

Every White House devotes months to preparing the State of the Union, sending the speech through multiple drafts. Both position paper and performance piece, the Address must pitch policies in proportion while showcasing the president in a way that entrances 535 Members of Congress in person and millions watching it at home.

Preparations for the 1998 State of the Union began toward the end of a very good year for Clinton, The economy was booming. The government budget was balanced. Thanks to the Great American Hook-up, millions of Americans were enjoying the exponentially enhanced magic of computers linked to the Internet. In late 1997, Clinton proclaimed: “Our nation is on a roll.”  

Unfortunately for Clinton—and America—during the frantic final preparations for the 1998 State of the Union, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. Suddenly, intrusive gossip trumped policy debates. After Clinton so carefully crafted a role as America’s “Good Father” in 1996, Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr was now investigating Clinton’s weaknesses as a bad husband.

Clinton’s rock-solid resilience, his insistence on sticking to the public’s business, amazed staffers. His late mother Virginia Clinton Kelley had taught him well: never quit and never show weakness to your enemies.

Still, Clinton lost his moral voice. With innuendo in the air, aides scoured speech drafts to avoid any moralizing that might trigger snickers. And the speech became more cautious, more substantive, less lyrical.

The morning of the speech, Day 7 of the scandal, the newspapers featured Clinton’s passionate denial: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” On NBC’s “Today” Show, Hillary Clinton counterattacked against the “vast right wing conspiracy” targeting her husband since 1992. Pundits debated whether the president would address the scandal, or concentrate on the nation’s business.

Clinton conquered Capitol Hill that night. He was a little subdued, but the 71-minute speech was characteristically lengthy, meaty, and just occasionally preachy. He reported that “the Federal deficit, once so incomprehensibly large that it had 11 zeros, will be simply zero.” He balanced between Great Society liberalism and Reaganism, saying, “We have the smallest government in 35 years, but a more progressive one.” He vowed to submit “the first balanced budget in 30 years.” And he had a big bipartisan mission: “save Social Security.”

Some legislators tittered when the president said, “We must set a good example.” Cynical reporters wondered whether the moment was “surreal” or “Kabuki theater.” But most viewers approved of the speech, along with the president’s commitment to doing his job.

A year later, Clinton triumphed again, dismissing the distractions of a Senate trial after the House of Representatives impeached him in December. This exhaustive, sometimes exhausting, 78-minute speech showcased the president at the helm, engaging, commanding, enjoying.

When the Republicans finally applauded one proposal enthusiastically, Clinton smiled: “That was encouraging, you know. There was more balance on the seats. I like that. Let’s give them a hand.” As the Democrats applauded the squirming Republicans, he beamed: “That’s great.” With that mischievous maneuver, Clinton spoke over the Republicans’ heads directly to the American people, emphasizing the bipartisanship most Americans want but both parties frequently fail to provide.

While again calling for “a government that is a progressive instrument of the common good, rooted in our oldest values of opportunity, responsibility and community,” Clinton tried mobilizing support for Social Security reform. That mission failed. But shortly after the 1999 speech, as in 1998, 69 percent of Americans polled approved the president’s job performance.

Clinton was neither a Churchillian orator nor a Reaganesque storyteller. Few of his phrases became immortal. His slick “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is,’ is,” may be his most memorable utterance. Clinton’s combination of eagerness, earnestness, and thoroughness, so suited to the State of the Union Address, charmed the masses, while his mastery of the material impressed pols. In 1993, when his teleprompter malfunctioned during his health care speech, he improvised impressively. After Clinton’s unscripted NAFTA riff due to scrambled notecards, former President George H.W. Bush marveled, “Now I understand why he’s inside looking out, and I’m outside looking in.”  

Since his first inaugural address, Obama has failed to wow Americans with his speeches, as he did so effectively during his 2008 campaign. The weight of actually being president seems to have blocked him from trying to raise Americans expectations through inspiration. Moreover, his cautious, distant, Mr. Spock hyper-intellectual mode and flashes of a surlier Mr. Hyde mode have dispirited even many Democrats. Many yearn for the hipper, happier “Yes-we-candidate” who dazzled in 2008, let alone the people-loving charmer from the 1990s.

Obama can copy some Clinton tactics. With unemployment down but GDP up, Obama finally can deliver some of the good news his predecessor was lucky enough to sprinkle throughout his speeches. Obama can flummox Republicans and appeal to the public by seizing the center rather than lurching left, acting as president of all the people, not a partisan leader of the opposition-to-the-opposition. He can mix sweeping big-picture reforms with more easily achieved, small-bore adjustments that improve Americans’ quality of life. He might even integrate it all into a coherent, comprehensible, and accessible vision such as Clinton’s opportunity-responsibility-community mantra, so Americans have a sense of forward momentum.

But Clinton also conveyed an intense, authentic, infectious love of the people, the policies, and the politics that disarmed many Republicans, thrilled many Democrats, and wooed many independents. That zeal, that zest, that sense of fun cannot be mimicked, cannot be manufactured. It has been missing from the Oval Office for a long time. It is missed in America.