Obama’s address: Borrowing from Bubba and the Gipper
Many presidents don’t have the problem of salvaging their second terms because the voters threw them out of office. Among those who win reelection, the successful communicators, such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, used many of the techniques that President Barack Obama deployed in his State of the Union Address last night. He is likely to repeat them often this year, which is one that will determine whether his administration is remembered as transformational or transitional.
Giving Americans credit: While most recent presidents began their State of the Union addresses by rattling off positive economic statistics, Obama did it differently. Using archetypal anecdotes — a dedicated teacher, a high-tech entrepreneur, a night-shift worker – Obama gave regular Americans credit for reducing unemployment, adding manufacturing jobs and increasing high school graduation rates. In so doing, Obama emulated Reagan, who declared in his second State of the Union address of his second term: “Today, the American people deserve our thanks.”
By speaking for the American people instead of talking at them, Obama seeks to do what Reagan and Clinton accomplished: appeal to swing voters frustrated with political bickering.
Advocating action: Presenting himself as the leader of a united people rather than a divided government, Obama declared, “The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress.” With aides calling for “a year of action,” Obama echoed Clinton who said in his 1997 address that “the enemy of our time is inaction.”
Using this action-versus-inaction frame, Obama presented his increasing emphasis on executive orders as an exercise in pragmatism, not partisanship: “What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require congressional action, and I’m happy to work with all of you. But America does not stand still, and neither will I.”
Piling up points: While pundits invariably criticize State of the Union addresses as laundry lists of “small ball” initiatives, most Americans appreciate presidential proposals to improve their lives – the more, the better. Obama announced a series of programs — many already underway. These initiatives include encouraging employers to hire veterans, military spouses and the long-term unemployed, launching hubs of high-tech manufacturing in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Youngstown, Ohio and providing high-speed broadband access to public school classrooms.
When Clinton announced similar endeavors during his State of the Union speeches, cable news commentators called him wordy and wonky, but most Americans approved. Obama and Clinton understand that presidencies are best defined with nouns and verbs, not adjectives.
Invoking mainstream values: While advance reports suggested Obama’s address would be decidedly populist and progressive, the speech used moderate language to support modest initiatives. As did Clinton before him, Obama invoked the values of work and family to support raising the minimum wage and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for low-wage workers.
Indeed, many of Obama’s proposals suggested strategic emphasis on mainstream values of individual self-reliance and national strength. He called for extending unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed and discussed training programs for mature workers. He discussed the implementation of healthcare reform in the context of the economic security of middle-class families. And he addressed his diplomatic initiative with Iran after reporting on military efforts against terrorism.
Concluding with a tribute to the wounded war hero Cory Remsburg, Obama evoked Remsburg’s resilience as an inspiration for Americans seeking national renewal.
Reaching across the aisle: Appealing for bipartisanship, Obama cited Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for his support in extending the EITC to unmarried workers. He mentioned Reagan twice in support of raising the minimum wage and negotiating with America’s adversaries. Similarly, Obama praised House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) as “the son of a bar keep” and General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra as “the daughter of a factory worker” — examples of the upward mobility that he embraced, instead of income redistribution. By reaching rhetorically across the aisle, Obama cribbed one from the Gipper, who regularly cited Democratic icons like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Standup soundbites: When Obama emphatically endorsed raising the minimum wage and ending wage discrimination against women, he implicitly invited the members of his party to stand up and cheer while creating a quandary for the opposition. Would they join the applause or sit silent.
In several of Clinton’s State of the Union speeches, particularly in 1998 when he urged Congress to use the federal budget surplus to “save Social Security first,” he too put his opponents on the spot. Clinton forced Republicans to choose between applauding popular proposals and registering disapproval before a national television audience.
Most State of the Union speeches receive favorable reviews from voters immediately after they’re delivered. But they quickly fade from memory. The portraits of the presidents who deliver them, however, remain etched in Americans’ minds.
PHOTO (TOP): President Barack Obama smiles as he arrives to deliver his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 28, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing
PHOTO (INSERT): President Bill Clinton waves as he is welcomed to the House Chamber to deliver his State of the Union address, February 4, 1997.