President Barack Obama stirred with an unexpectedly powerful inaugural address – a second effort that far surpassed his first. He summoned great themes of American history to argue cogently for his second-term agenda. Now he has a chance to deliver a State of the Union address that improves on those of his first term, too.
The key to success? Presidents still have the power of surprise. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “I am like a cat. I make a quick stroke, and then I relax.” As in his inaugural, Obama should surprise us – this time with new policies and sharp specificity. On the budget, democracy reform and immigration, the president stands well positioned.
Forget the Super Bowl, or even the Oscars. For us policy wonks and ex-speechwriters, this is the biggest event – the time to crack open a beer, microwave the Buffalo chicken wings and settle down in front of the TV for a siege of viewing.
For the State of the Union remains among America’s few civic rituals. It is the one time every year that citizens can hear our leader talk, at length and directly, about where he would take the country. Presidents are ubiquitous nowadays. The idea of an Oval Office address, with everyone hanging breathlessly on the first “My fellow Americans,” is a relic of the Walter Cronkite era. But television channels across the dial still all tune in to the State of the Union, a rare remaining “roadblock.” And the public still watches. The 2012 speech, largely devoid of controversy, drew 38 million viewers.
I worked with President Bill Clinton on his State of the Union addresses. Clinton relished this combination of politics, policy and showmanship. He prepared for weeks. In fact, he used the speeches to organize his agencies and launch his policy agenda.