Web Chat: Analyzing the 2012 State of the Union

January 25, 2012

Former presidential speechwriter Stephen Hess answered your questions on President Obama’s State of the Union address in a live web chat moderated by POLITICO.

12:31 Vivyan Tran: Welcome everyone, let’s get started.

12:31 Comment From Anne: How would you grade President Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) speech last night? Do you think he did an effective job of laying out a blueprint for America?

12:34 Stephen Hess: I thought it was a very effective speech, as a SOTU address is usually a laundry-list affair and there is no way of avoiding it—and I say that as someone who has helped write three of them. Nevertheless, I do think he managed to have enough thematic material that we have a sense of where he wants to go beyond the immediate session of Congress.

12:34 Comment From Doyle: How does this speech stand out from Obama’s previous speeches? Or does it at all?

12:36 Stephen Hess: I think he is moving into a campaign mode that reflects the fourth year of a president who is running for reelection. In year one you set what the agenda is and by year four you’ve either succeeded or are realizing that you can’t succeed, so you’re left with a lot less substantive proposal. And that was reflected in the proposals he made last night in which the president and his speech writers aimed for having the whole be greater than the sum of its parts.
12:37 Comment From Jesus: Do you think Obama effectively refuted the GOP’s charge that he is engaging in class warfare?

12:39 Stephen Hess: It was a speech that certainly separated him philosophically from the opposition party. His keyword was fairness. If it was a speech given by the Republican nominee, the keyword probably would have been opportunity. I think through much of history Main Street America would have fallen on the opportunity side of the ledger. But I also think that for 2012, Obama is on the right side of where Americans fall.

12:39 Comment From Vi: Can you describe for us some of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into prepping a speech like the SOTU?

12:42 Stephen Hess: Typically the White House, probably the secretary to the Cabinet, sends out a request to the agencies in the Fall. During the subsequent months, the White House staff is inundated with requests from advocacy groups, politicians and even letter writers for what they would like to see in the president’s SOTU. It then falls to the speechwriters, following the president’s directive to be as brief as possible and as thematic as possible, to try and weave all of these pieces of thread into a coherent message. This is why I said earlier that regardless of the president’s initial intention, the speech almost always comes out too long and too diffused.

12:43 Comment From Karen K: What impact, if any, will the speech have on the partisanship in Congress?

12:43 Stephen Hess: None.

12:43 Comment From James: Given that we’re in an election year, how much of what the president promised last night will he be able to accomplish?

12:45 Stephen Hess: I think in this session of Congress, the chief objective of both the members and the president is to reach a compromise on the payroll tax proposal held over from last year and that the conference committee is presently working on. Having accomplished this, which I think they will do, they will then turn to what is really on their minds, getting themselves reelected.

12:45 Comment From Tony: How will the speech be received on the campaign trail?

12:48 Stephen Hess: The president is already out on the campaign trail, and will be all week in very important states, following up on his proposals from yesterday. At the same time, his organization in Chicago will be using the speech as a flight plan for what the president’s basic philosophy is. The job of the opposition will be to deconstruct the speech, particularly as they feel it exaggerates the degree to which the economy is coming out of recession and the absence of serious attention to dealing with the nation’s debt.

12:48 Comment From Guest: What does the speech tell us about what Obama has learned in the last four years and how will we see that manifest in his management of Congress this year?

12:52 Stephen Hess: I think the speech reflects a president who came to Washington either naively or idealistically thinking that he could bridge the gap between the two parties, particularly in Congress. It may well have taken him too long to recognize that this wasn’t realistic and last night’s speech, although outwardly polite, I saw as a recognition that a realistic future depends on the outcome, both for the president and the Congress, of November’s elections.

12:52 Comment From Abigail: Were there any standout moments in the speech?

12:55 Stephen Hess: I liked the beginning and the end, as any former speechwriter would. I thought he truly brought the nation up to the “Reaganesque mountaintop” in his conclusion, especially weaving in one of his great successes—killing bin Laden—and praise of the American military personnel who accomplished that goal.

12:55 Comment From Lucy: Why did the president talk so much about “energy security” last night, but then fail to mention the Keystone Pipeline?

12:57 Stephen Hess: Because it was not in his interest to mention the pipeline, a decision that when reopened, as it will be, will divide two of his most important constituencies—environmentalists and the union labor movement. You might note, as I found out this morning, that Speaker Boehner had folks from the Keystone management team as his guests at last night’s SOTU.

12:59 Comment From Ron: Usually SOTU speeches fall into two categories—either shopping list or inspirational. Which do you think this one was?

1:01 Stephen Hess: I saw some inspirational germs in the Obama speech which struck me as interesting, in that I have found the president to be very inspirational when he has been a candidate and surprisingly pedestrian as a speaker when he has been in “governing mode.” So I see the inspirational shadows in last night’s speech reflecting that the president is quickly moving into “candidacy mode.”

1:02 Vivyan Tran: Thanks everyone, see you next week!