How Do You Put a SOTU Together?

January 22nd, 2011 at 11:10 am David Frum | 8 Comments |

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Combine one part Speech from the Throne. One part campaign ad. And one part Oscar Night. That’s the formula for a presidential State of the Union address.

While working in the Bush White House, ask I had the opportunity to work on two such addresses, buy in 2001 and 2002. (The Feb. 27 2001 address to a joint session of Congress did not actually carry the title “State of the Union,” but it functioned as one despite its humble self-description as a mere “Economic Message.”)

A State of the Union consumes the entire executive branch. Every department and agency of government competes to insert its pet project into the speech. “We have to say something about our farm program.” “Don’t forget space exploration.” “We have a great story to tell about disaster relief.”

Meanwhile, the White House struggles to impose some kind of unitary theme or message — and to insert some kind of memorable phrase or line that will generate positive headlines.

Usually, the struggle ends in failure. At the first meetings on the State of the Union in November, somebody — maybe the president himself — will usually say: “We don’t want to do just another shopping list.” After two, three, sometimes four months of hard work, what emerges is … a shopping list.

And you know what? It turns out that the viewers at home like shopping lists. President Clinton’s States of the Union were almost universally condemned by journalists and communications professionals as sloppy monstrosities. Too long, too shapeless, just one damn thing after another. Yet after each , Clinton’s numbers would surge. People liked the big formless blob speeches, despite their frightening length: 77 minutes in 1998, 79 minutes in 1999, 85 minutes in 1995, 89 minutes (the all-time record!) in 2000. The longer the speech, after all, the more likely you are to hear something that directly concerns you.

Thus, Clinton in 2000: “My budget includes a $110-million initiative to promote economic development in the [Mississippi] Delta, and a billion dollars to increase economic opportunity, health care, education and law enforcement for our Native American communities.” Pause for applause from residents of the Mississippi Delta and Native American communities.

George W. Bush’s speeches tended to be shorter and more tightly focused than Bill Clinton’s, but Barack Obama is reverting to the previous form. He spoke for 69 minutes in January 2010. Unlike Clinton’s, however, Obama’s speeches have not effectively mobilized support for the president’s agenda. That may be due to the dire economic conditions in the United States. Or it my be due to a certain unappealing quality of scolding and complaint to which Obama sometimes succumbs.

Thus, Obama in 2010: “The more that TV pundits reduce serious debates to silly arguments, big issues into sound bites, our citizens turn away. No wonder there’s so much cynicism out there. No wonder there’s so much disappointment. I campaigned on the promise of change. Change we can believe in, the slogan went. And right now I know there are many Americans who aren’t sure if they still believe we can change or that I can deliver it. But remember this: I never suggested that change would be easy or that I could do it alone.”

My main suggestion for Obama in 2011 would be: Don’t forget the importance of delivering positive news. America’s normal ebullient self-confidence has sagged in this recession. Almost half of Americans now (falsely) believe China to be the world’s leading economy. Not even one-third (correctly) credit the United States. (America’s economy is in fact three times larger than China’s, and Americans annually file 20 times as many patents as the Chinese.)

But you know, like the old cart horse when it hears the milk truck roll by, I can’t help but prick up my ears at this season of the year and think in longer form about what the president more specifically ought to say. I wrote those thoughts out in long form in the February issue of Esquire magazine. (For some crazy reason, the editors put a photograph of a nearly naked Brooklyn Decker on the cover instead.) You can read it online, after this opening apologia, on which I will conclude this column:

“It’s a weird feeling of gender bending to imagine writing a major speech for a president of a different party. It’s tempting to treat the whole exercise as a joke: ‘First of all, I’d like to express my apologies to [Israeli] Prime Minister Netanyahu for treating him so rudely.’ Or — worse — you insert into the president’s mouth words that he’d never say, and the whole thing degenerates into political wish fulfillment. Yet there can be a real purpose in the exercise. After the Democratic defeat of November 1994, President Clinton telephoned the neo-conservative Democrat Ben Wattenberg and wondered aloud how he’d ended up the manager of the government, and not the leader of the country. That one question propelled President Clinton’s return to the political center.”

“A supporter may have better insight into what an embattled president would wish to say. An opponent can offer better perspective on what such a president needs to say.”

Originally published in the National Post.

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8 Comments so far ↓

  • joannes73

    David “Axis of Evil” Frum giving advice on how to put a SOTU together? Please tell me your kidding me.

  • midcon


    You are right that there was considerable effort to get something in the SOTU speech by the agencies. We used to try and identify and contribute some key phrase that would send a signal to whoever, about a certain topic. Somes time is performance management, other times it was the necessity of basic scientific research. While we would generally write a position paper, we were really only looking for a short catchy 3 or 4 words somewhere that would signify WH support and interest in whatever.

    I don’t know that we were ever successful, but we also figured that at least it may have been noticed by someone influential who might lend a friendly ear in the future. So it was never considered a lesson in futility.

    Such is life in the executive branch when appropriations is the fuel running the engine.

  • Moderate


    Who would you rather write a presidential speech, people who can’t distinguish between “your” and “you’re”? Take a few minutes to read Frum’s speech; you might appreciate the craft.

  • politicalfan

    There is one point that is made via Frum that is truly on target. I think grabbing ideas from all areas of politics (affiliations) is smart. “I hear you’ in the form of what is written and then skillfully said. The message and messenger have to find a way to make sure people hear it!

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    David: I thought you and Scully and the other presidential speechwriters during W’s first administration did a pretty skillful job with timing and rythms. For instance, Bush’s applause lines never felt contrived to me, as they often do in political speeches.

    One of the things that has always pained me about Al Gore as a public speaker is his proclivity to step on his applause lines. I don’t think one could count the number of times during the ’00 general election that he did this. (His nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention being the worst case.) Is this simply a matter of him being a hopelessly slipshod and irrythmatic public speaker, or is this something that more talented writers could fix?

  • Arms Merchant

    David, your proposed SOTU speech in Esquire is so wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. It suffers from the same problem as “No Labels:” the assumption that if only people could put aside their philosophical differences and pragmatically solve our common problems, everything would work out.

    Unfortunately pragmatic compromise has gotten us to exactly where we are today: bankrupt, our freedoms compromised, and our citizens oppressed by a government-corporate Kleptocracy that picks winners and losers based on campaign contributions. This is the fruit of government doling out goodies to favored constituencies in exchange for votes. This is what bi-partisan comprise has been all about–ever increasing centralization, ever increasing power of the State at the expense of the individual.

    You have to start by draining the swamp. The reason there is so much money chasing the federal government for favors is because its power has grown so enormous. The money is huge because the stakes are huge.

    Kill the beast, devolve power to the states and the people. Then the lobbyists will go home.

  • N Myles

    Hey joannes73:

    put a sock in it. If you have no respect for DF, why are you here..? We know about the axis thing: This is why we are here. OK … Got that …

    beat it!

  • Carney

    Hear hear Myles.