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Wonks on the State of the Union

US Capitol Building

(Photo: Jeff Watts)

As President Barack Obama prepares to deliver the State of the Union, January 25, experts from the School of Public Affairs and School of Communication weigh in on what to expect from the president’s annual address to Congress.

Professor of government in the School of Public Affairs, Danny Hayes’s research focuses on political communication and political behavior in American politics. A former journalist, he’s also interested in the media’s influence on citizens’ attitudes during policy debates and election campaigns.

Given the criticism some pundits have faced since the Tucson shootings, do you expect media to be more cautious in their coverage of President Obama’s remarks?

Hayes: Don’t expect much of a change. Scathing criticism is the coin of the realm on talk radio and cable TV, and the Tucson shooting hasn’t done anything to alter that. The audiences for these kinds of programs—whether they’re conservative or liberal, on Fox or on MSNBC—don’t tune in for reasoned, civil discourse. They want to hear why their party is right and the other is wrong—or, perhaps more to the point, why the other party is ruining the country. As a result, the hostility directed at Obama and the Democrats in conservative media will sound a lot like it did after last year’s State of the Union, and the same will be true of liberal commentators’ reactions to the GOP’s response. We probably won’t hear violent rhetoric, but neither will we hear Kumbaya.

The press is sometimes called the “fourth branch” of government. In what ways does its dissection of the president’s speech help or harm public discourse?

Hayes: Media coverage of the State of the Union benefits the country in several ways. Because it’s treated as a major event, it can draw the attention of people who don’t typically pay much attention to politics. It serves as a reminder of the fundamental issues that the nation is grappling with. And it highlights the ideological differences between the parties, which helps citizens hold them accountable at election time.

But far too often the substantive issues—the looming debt crisis, the way forward in Afghanistan, the twin priorities of stimulating the economy and improving the country’s long-term fiscal health—are overshadowed by journalists’ attention to the more simplistic politics of the moment. Remember Obama’s discussion last year of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or the proposed freeze on government spending, or the Nuclear Security Summit? Neither do I. But there were plenty of stories following the speech about whether he had “won” or “lost” the night.

Writing and airing stories about public policy is hard, so reporters often fall back on easy story lines of conflict and political strategy. We’ve heard in recent weeks that our discourse needs to be more civil. That’s true. But it wouldn’t be a bad thing if it was also a little more nerdy.

 

An adjunct professor in the School of Communication (SOC), Robert Lehrman has worked as a speechwriter for dozens of Democratic politicians, including Vice President Al Gore. Author of The Political Speechwriter’s Companion, he created SOC’s first speechwriting course in 2005.

What kind of tone do you expect in President Obama’s speech?

Lehrman: Optimistic. Look, Obama’s like Jim Riggleman in spring training. He’s pointing out all the great new ballplayers he’s got hoping that makes the fans think, “Hey, we could make the Series.” Obama’s series is Election Day 2012. The political equivalent of Strasburg coming back? The economy coming back, more jobs, less deficit.

So, aside from a note of sadness about Tucson, Obama will spend a lot of time talking about jobs created, jobs to come, and shrinking deficits. Good things, which is what CBO predicts for 2012. Will Obama have some lines about bipartisanship and civility? Will he have legislative proposals? Sure. But look for optimism about the economy.

What advice would you give to President Obama for the speech?

Lehrman: Like a Passover seder, a State of the Union asks four questions. Also like Passover, the answers are always the same. What is the State of the Union? Strong. Have we done much? Absolutely. Is there more to do? Yes, and here’s a long list. Can we do it? Of course. We’re Americans.

He should make some concessions and take some stands, and not just on health care. For example, he could concede the Republicans are right in their more modest proposals (from the Budget Committee) about cutting domestic spending, but reject the extremist Republican Study Group ideas, which would fire many thousands of federal workers. Beyond that, he should be shorter than last year, use story to inspire us — and not just at the end.

Most important, he should make this clear: he’ll listen to what Republicans want, but fight for things voters want.


A former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, Eric Schnure is a freelance writer, communications consultant, and SOC adjunct professor.

What advice in general would you give to President Obama for the speech? For example, how would you address the economy? What would you emphasize?

Schnure: Clearly, the emphasis will be on the only way to ensure that the economy continues to improve — by supporting innovation and creating jobs. But my advice for the president is: be inclusive but go big and bold.  When compared to Sarah Palin, the tea party faction, or the Republicans who voted to repeal health care, President Obama is the reasonable one; in part that explains his approval ratings.  People don’t want him to step aside — they want him to lead.

In other words, he should approach this speech by making clear that the November results were not a mandate for Republicans but rather a mandate for a divided government.  It is still up to the president to set the agenda and lead.

Do you think President Obama will continue to call for a more civil tone in discourse in the wake of the Tucson tragedy?

Schnure: Yes, it’s the right thing to do. Maybe a dose of civility, even when debating the most controversial issues, can lead to confidence and cooperation. The question is, how will the chamber respond?

What happens when the president finishes talking about Tucson and moves on to health care?  Will the cameras still pan to Republican members shaking their heads in disgust? Will half the chamber jump to its feet when the president says one thing and sit on their hands grumbling when he says another? And if they do, will the American people really care where they’re sitting, or will they just see more of the same?

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will give the GOP response to the president’s State of the Union on Tuesday night. Ryan is a 1991 alumnus of AU’s Washington Semester Program, having participated in the foreign policy semester as a student at Miami University of Ohio.