When President Obama gives his annual State of the Union Address tonight, an estimated 50 million viewers will watch. Some newscasters are hyping the speech as critical to his presidency. But despite the buildup, the question remains: will it matter? For many Americans, it’s the least memorable of presidential speeches. That’s because it’s often far too long, interrupted by grandstanding applause, and is too often a laundry list of goals that every federal agency and outside interest group wants the President to include. The Washington Post had a good story on this on Sunday, “Interest groups vie for a moment of Obama’s time in State of the Union address.”
When I worked at the Peace Corps in the late 1990s, we worked for months to get President Clinton to mention our goal of having 10,000 volunteers by 2000. We were thrilled to hear him mention that goal in his 1997 State of the Union Address — never mind that it was one-half of one sentence. But in the end, funding fell far short, and the Peace Corps is still not close to having 10,000 volunteers.
Still, I think the State of the Union does matter. It is an opportunity for a President to break through media clutter. Because of the intense press coverage this week, it will be difficult for the average citizen to avoid seeing or hearing about at least a part of it. It’s a real chance for President Obama to tell the American people - “this is what I believe in and this is where I think the nation needs to go.”
At a briefing I attended at the White House yesterday morning for Democratic strategists, David Axelrod and other advisers made it clear to that the theme of the President’s speech will be about “winning the future.” The President will lay out a plan to win the future by “out-innovating, out-educating and out-building the rest of the world.” Axelrod said Obama will talk about the need to take responsibility for our deficits, by investing only in what makes America stronger and cutting what doesn’t, and reforming our government so that it’s leaner and smarter for the 21st century.
According to his aides, the speech will not contain a laundry list of policies or specific proposals, but will rather be a discussion of goals for the United States to win the future. It will be optimistic, and the President will touch on the mood post-Tucson tragedy but will not dwell on it.
Partly because of the tragedy in Tucson, this year, for the first time in memory, many members of Congress are inviting each other to sit together as friends, not divided by party. The conservative RedState.com blog post on it yesterday had a good headline - “congressionalmatch.com.” I’m not sure this bipartisan matchup really matters, but if this small symbolism shows resolve to work together for the common good, I’m all for it.
The President is on a bit of a roll lately, with several recent polls showing his overall approval rating increasing and more importantly, his standing with independents jumping by double digits. Analysts point to a number of explanations for this, including his reassuring response to the Tucson shooting, his willingness to cut deals with the congressional GOP in the lame duck session last month, and the presence of a new political foil, in the form of emboldened conservative Republicans.
But polls are fleeting and the President knows that his State of the Union Address will either add to his momentum or reverse it and start it going the other way. I know which side my money is on. What do you think?
Media Relations Myths