Up Front

Keep it Simple, Mr. President: Advice for the State of the Union Address

Anthony Popiel and Charles McLean

As military leaders, we both have developed command philosophies to provide vision and purpose to the units we were leading.  In communicating our priorities to the troops upon taking command, we received great advice from our senior enlisted advisors to respectfully stick to the military tenet of “keep it simple, stupid” – that is, to concentrate on a few select priorities when communicating what is most important for the unit to accomplish.

As we prepare to receive President Obama’s first State of the Union Address, we’d like to pass on that same advice. Election results over the last few months and public opinion polls suggest that the administration needs to focus more squarely on the most pressing concerns facing the nation. We believe the following novel approach to the State of the Union Address would help the president begin to get back in touch with and inspire “Middle America.”

In past State of the Union addresses, presidents have outlined dozens of priorities for the coming year during a 45 to 60 minute discourse. However, it’s commonly understood by effective leaders that when you make everything a priority, then nothing is actually a priority. The real priorities get lost in such a long dissertation. What we recommend as an alternative is that the president speak for no more than 15 minutes and stress only three main points. He could spend a few minutes touching on highlights of the previous year, but he should do so in a manner that sets the table for his 2010-11 priorities. Those three points would certainly be debatable, but we recommend the following:

  1. jobs / the economy,
  2. reigning in federal spending, and,
  3. the war on terror / homeland security.

We know that this approach may offend many in government or industry, who hang on to the hope of hearing mention of their issue or program in the speech so they can turn around and use the presidential emphasis to seek greater federal investment, congressional support or public attention for their policies or programs. But don’t be swayed by those pressures, Mr. President – don’t get off message. Your priorities, and the direction in which you want to lead the country, will be crystal clear to all if you keep it simple.

Now we know that other issues are still important to you – they are important to us as well. Let America know that issues such as affordable health care, comprehensive ocean policy, reduction of greenhouse gases, and gays in the military are still on the radar screen. However, you could stress that the complexity or divisiveness of those issues demands deeper bi-partisan consideration and cooperation, which you plan to facilitate. Stress that you will still move these balls, and many others, down the field, but you don’t want to dilute your three main priorities on the one night you have America’s undivided attention. You might even parlay this into a second media opportunity later in the week, where you communicate these other agenda items to Congress and to the American public in advance of delivering your 2011 budget on February 1.

There is usually so much included in the State of the Union that we can’t figure out what’s most important. The State of the Union should be used to demonstrate your resolve and sharpen your administration’s focus on the most pressing needs of the nation. Such a speech would be a radical departure from the norm and a memorable call for action. Mr. President, on this night, we implore you to talk about CHANGE that we can ALL get behind.