What Obama Should Say
Ted Sorensen and other former White House speechwriters offer advice on how the State of the Union address can turn the presidency around.
It’s time for President Barack Obama to give the speech of his life—again.
For every season, there is the Obama speech that changes everything. The young U.S. senator’s Democratic convention address in Boston in 2004, the candidate’s statement on race and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the new president’s address to the Muslim world in Cairo, West Point, Nobel Prize, and on we go to Wednesday’s State of the Union, when yet again Obama is expected to move the world with his teleprompter and, with a few well-chosen words, right an agenda that has gone all wobbly.
The president must appear to bend his domestic plans, in general, and health-care reform, in particular, toward the center. “His base needs to feel slightly neglected,” said McGroarty.
Veterans of four White House speechwriting shops say America’s most polarizing president, according to Gallup, can get it together and give a speech that stops the administration’s foundering.
The challenge is high, in part because of the limiting nature of the State of the Union address itself.
“It’s not a fascinating speech, frankly. It’s a little like reading numbers out of a phonebook,” said Ted Sorensen, the John F. Kennedy adviser and speechwriter.
• Christopher Buckley: My Bootleg State of the Union Unlike inauguration addresses, which tend to have memorable lines (Sorensen’s famous call for Kennedy, for instance: “Ask not what your country can do for you”) or momentous occasions, like Kennedy’s trip to Berlin, State of the Union addresses are nuts-and-bolts affairs. It’s hard to reach for the sky when you’re stuck in the weeds.
How can Obama succeed?
Lower expectations: See Sorensen above. If the speech is more engaging than a reading of the phonebook, Obama’s done something right.
Not everyone is on board, though.
“These speeches are usually a big deal,” said former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol. “Presidents in their first terms find themselves in a tight spot. Rarely is the way forward so unclear as it is right now.”
Ignore the lobbying: Getting a pet project mentioned in the president’s address can mean the world to a Cabinet secretary or department head, which is why speechwriters are lobbied hard, veterans say. Calls come late at night. Everyone in Washington thinks they have the silver bullet.
“Every Tom, Dick, and Harry is saying, ‘Use this line, and it will save your administration. If he says this one thing, it will turn it all around,’” said Joshua Gilder, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan.
Ignoring Tom, Dick, and Harry (or, in this case, Vilsack, Durbin, and Reid) may be the quickest way to winnow the speech down to its spiritual core.
“This speech is going to be scrutinized not only for its agenda but its degree of realism,” said Shesol.
That means avoiding, as much as possible, a laundry list of initiatives. (No easy task. “We hear it is going to be a tightly focused, tightly thematic speech. It’s hard to remember a State of the Union address that really was,” Shesol said.)
Such focus may not just serve a rhetorical purpose, as it will help persuade listeners that the president is charting a new course in 2010.
“He should resist the temptation to go down the line and verse of his domestic program. He needs to stay at the level of principle and not head down the same path again as was the popular perception of 2009, which was when he got in too deep with all the horse trading in the health-care bill,” said George H.W. Bush speechwriter Dan McGroarty.
Aim low: Obama’s speechwriters also must be wary of falling victim to their own success. Ken Khachigian, Reagan’s chief speechwriter, said he sent Obama’s head writer, Jon Favreau, an email after the election, wishing him luck and warning him that writing for a gifted orator means increased pressure after every speech. That’s why, Khachigian said, Obama “would benefit from a sort of meat-and-potatoes approach,” keeping things low-key.
What may help is a little self-deprecating humor. The president, lampooned as out of touch, could use some humanizing, and one well-placed joke should do the trick. Nothing about a pickup truck, though, Khachigian cautioned.
Skip it: Well, not really, but with complaints about overexposure from the right, is everyone really dying for another big speech from the “ Just Words” president? Maybe he should stay home. After all, the Constitution doesn’t require a prime-time address, just updates from “time to time.” “Words won’t do it. It has to be backed up by policy,” said Gilder.
“The circus atmosphere”—all the partisan applause—“is degrading to the presidency and the Congress,” fellow Reaganite Khachigian said.
He acknowledged that Reagan had more than a little to do with cultivating this environment. And then there’s the problem of having Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi standing behind the president applauding every line. She is certainly not the most popular face for Obama’s agenda. Similarly, the pomp and pageantry of the evening make a poor setting for Obama’s desired pivot toward populism. While the solemnity of the night can benefit the president as he flexes his commander in chief muscles, he’d be better off heading out of the Beltway and rolling up his sleeves for the angry act.
“He’s been experimenting with populist rhetoric,” said Bush speechwriter McGroarty. “He’s gone all Bob Shrum with his ‘I’ll fight for you’ refrain…. That is not rhetoric easily applied to the State of the Union. The State of the Union is not a stump speech.”
Anger your base: If the Daily Kos crowd feels appeased by Wednesday’s address, Obama has done something wrong. This means the president must appear to bend his domestic plans, in general, and health-care reform, in particular, toward the center.
“His base needs to feel slightly neglected,” said McGroarty.
A key part of that benign neglect may be reminding Republicans that they once did, or still do, support important parts of the Obama agenda.
“I hope, on some of the national interest points, that he quotes Republicans, including Republican presidents of the past, who have supported very similar, maybe even identical proposals,” Sorensen said.
Find Lenny Skutnik: With the economy on its knees and a presidency just getting its footing, it’s been suggested that Obama should look back at Reagan’s 1982 State of the Union, given at a point when the Gipper faced parallel problems.
Reagan vets bristle at the comparison.
“I’m always leery,” Khachigian said. “I would never have thought of looking to a different presidency to gain guidance as to what I would counsel the president. They’ve got to do their own thing, come up with their own theme and message.”
But one thing that Obama can reasonably rob from Reagan, as most other presidents have since that 1982 address, is Lenny Skutnik. That year, Reagan invited Skutnik, the government worker who rescued a female plane-crash victim from the icy Potomac River, to sit in his gallery.
“Reagan started the practice, which I thought was a little corny, but it worked,” Sorensen said.
Ever since, former Clinton speechwriter Ted Widmer said, speechwriters have said to each other, “This speech could use a Lenny Skutnik moment.”
Finding a Skutnik of Obama’s own would be wise.
“That would not be a bad thing to do,” said Widmer. “It’s a dark time of year. There’s hardly any light out. It’s freezing. He can bring some light and warmth into the speech by reminding everyone there of how great Americans can be to each other.”
But Obama’s biggest challenge Wednesday will be trying to remind Americans that only 15 months ago most thought he would be great for them, too.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.