Obama’s State of the Union speech preview: a new tone to match the new political reality

By J Brooks Spector 25 January 2011

On Tuesday in the US Congress, the sergeant-at-arms will call out, “Oyez, oyez - Mr Speaker: the President of the United States!” Barack Obama will enter the hall, go to the rostrum and address a nation in need of reassurance – both of the future of the nation and in his leadership. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

It is a time–honoured ritual spelt out in the US Constitution: “He (the president) shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient…”

For much of American history, presidents routinely delivered their views on the “State of the Union” in a written report that was read by a clerk to a half-empty Congress. The truly memorable presidential speeches have been inaugural ones as with Franklin Roosevelt’s, John Kennedy’s or Abraham Lincoln’s. Others have been farewell addresses such as George Washington’s or Dwight Eisenhower’s. And yet other exceptional ones have been those to rally a nation as in Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech after the attack on Pearl Harbour or Lincoln’s at Gettysburg.

By contrast, the yearly “State of the Union” addresses were usually a bland, boring laundry list-cum-scorecard of plans and accomplishments. Even now, they usually have something of a patchwork-quilt texture as bevies of presidential advisors and departments jockey for the attention of the president’s speechwriters.

The change of the State of the Union speech into the political extravaganza it is today began in 1924 when the first one was broadcast live on nationwide radio. In 1952 it made it on to television for the first time. Lyndon Johnson made the fateful choice to deliver his State of the Union address in the evening to maximise television audiences. It was, after all, the only time a president could speak directly to the nation for an hour unmediated by questions or other interruptions, although national television broadcasters now regularly carry a shorter response by an opposition politician. This year, the Republican speaker will be Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.

When the president enters Congress to deliver his remarks, senators and congressmen are packed together on the floor of the house chamber (it is bigger than the Senate’s meeting room), along with cabinet members, Supreme Court justices and other senior government figures. One cabinet secretary, however, is not in attendance – a quiet but forceful acknowledgement of the imperatives of national security and the need to preserve the continuation of government should the nearly unthinkable happen to those who have assembled to listen to the president’s speech.

In 1982, Ronald Reagan, the “Great Communicator”, instituted the first of those arresting visual shout-outs with heroes and contemporary icons placed in the audience (and often sitting next to the First Lady) to generate an arresting, made-for-television applause moment during the speech’s broadcast. Who was so cold not to join a standing ovation for Lenny Skutnik, the archetypal ordinary man who did the extraordinary thing of jumping into the frozen Potomac River to rescue the drowning victims of an airplane crash. Some, of course, have argued this was simply a way to use real people as prompts for automatic applause soundbites. Regardless, this is now here to stay and we’ll see it on Tuesday again.

Because State of the Union speeches have become major evening televised events, senators and representatives scheme to be seated on the aisle so as to get some nationwide TV face time with the president, a handshake, a warm embrace, even a hug or kiss on the cheek. Although no formal records are kept, Republican congresswoman Michelle Bachmann (and now a possible presidential candidate) may have achieved the ultimate with 30 seconds worth of face (and hug) time with George W Bush in 2007.

In an increasingly partisan era, television has usually shown a chamber in which half the attendees are wildly cheering all those carefully calibrated applause lines in the president’s speech, while the other half silently, even sullenly, sits on their hands and scowls. This year, however, there is a movement by a number of astonishingly rational congressmen and senators to blur the partisan dividing line between Republicans and Democrats by grouping together as state delegations, regardless of party. At least some politicians seem to be embarrassed by the increasingly angry tone of the country’s political rhetoric and this was the least they could do to turn it around. While this idea may well tamp down some of the rancour, it may do the same to the volume of applause. Could this be a development to watch for in the future?

So what will Barack Obama say this year? Once the speech is delivered, politicians, commentators and analysts will be parsing his thoughts, busy counting the number of times Obama says: “jobs”, “the economy”, “competitiveness”, “new infrastructure”, “smart spending”, “21st century”, “bipartisan”, “partnership”, “climate”, “healthcare”, “renewable energy”, “smart power”, “non-proliferation”, “China”, and “join together” versus “unemployment”, “toxic assets”, “subprime mortgages”, “Afghanistan”, “Iran”, “Iraq”, “terror”, “al Qaeda”, “the Middle East” and “Russia”. Or, as a cynic might say, a lexicon that spells out the Obama agenda for the future versus the leftover mess inherited from the previous administration.

In giving a preview, sneak-peek of his likely speech contents, Obama spoke at a factory in upstate New York last week about a need to nurture competitiveness and innovation to generate jobs. But, said The New York Times: “The real test of his commitment to that cause in the second half of his term will come on Tuesday in his State of the Union address. He will have to make his case in the face of a newly strengthened and shrill Republican Party, determined to dismantle government’s most fundamental role in fighting the recession.”

The Times went on to say Obama’s crucial task now is to explain why government expenditures for long-term job creation and growth are more important than the Republicans’ proffered spending cuts. As the editor of the Times argued further: “Now is the time for a full-throated statement about the need for federal investment in infrastructure, education and state aid. He should capitalize on his new team of business-oriented advisers to explain which industries he believes will provide the jobs, and show what he is prepared to do to foster that growth.”

The Times urged Obama to speak forcibly on immigration reform, the environment and climate-change legislation, as well as explaining to the nation why stability in Afghanistan still matters and how his administration plans to achieve it. Finally, of course, like many other commentators, the Times urged Obama to build upon his great rhetorical moment in Tucson by offering the words that would help restore confidence in his leadership and move away from a growing fear of the future.

Insomniacs, serious political groupies and the mothers of sleepless newborns can watch it live at 4:00 in South Africa on the Web and international news channels and judge for themselves. The rest will have to be content with the inevitable repeat broadcasts, podcasts, webstreaming and texts posted on the Web. Regardless, no one will be able to ignore Obama’s words this time. It may well be his last, best opportunity to reintroduce himself, his ideas and his administration to the American people and the world before the 2012 presidential election campaign overwhelms us all. DM

For more, read The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Post, the White House, Wikipedia (for a list of Lenny Skutnik moments), Slate, and Mediamatters. The White House website will offer webstreaming of the speech, as will most major newspapers. Mediamatters discusses the planned Republican response.

Photo: White House Flickr archive.