President Obama’s State Of The Union 2012: How’d He Do?
President Obama delivered a strong State of the Union (SOTU) address tonight in which he previewed the outlines of the 2012 presidential race.
Of course, State of the Union speeches are rarely remembered for long. Most Americans rightfully view presidential promises made during the annual address with skepticism. (Remember President George W. Bush’s 2004 pledge to have a manned mission to Mars? How’s that going?)
Although the speech itself may not be remembered much past next week, I noticed two major elements that may help determine the outcome of the 2012 election.
1. Optimism: Since the beginning of the 24/7 media age in 1980, there have been eight presidential elections. The more optimistic candidate has won all eight.
President Obama seems to be aware of that dynamic, as the SOTU was full of the sunny, upbeat rhetoric that independent voters predictably prefer. For example, some of his lines included:
“We can do this. We’ve done it before!”
“We’ve come too far to turn back now. As long as I’m President, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum.”
“We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back.”
2. Class Warfare: Whichever Republican eventually gets the nomination will bash President Obama for injecting “class warfare” into the campaign. Mr. Obama attempted to preempt that tonight by saying:
“Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.
We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference – like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet. That’s not right. Americans know it’s not right.”
That’s a terrific talking point. Will it work in a general election against Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich? That depends on the strength of their rebuttal – but it’s a strong message that seems well-aligned with the mood of the country.
Although Mr. Obama got those two big things right, his speech wasn’t perfect in several areas:
1. Where’s the Vision? Yes, Mr. Obama articulated some ideas about job creation, education reform, and infrastructure, among others. But where’s the central narrative that will give voters a vision for what a second Obama term would look like? Where is his “Morning in America” or “Bridge to the 21st Century,” the central idea that will stand as his raison d’etre for four more years?
2. He Didn’t Improve on Five Weaknesses From Last Year: In my review of last year’s SOTU, I cited five places where the President could improve his delivery. He committed all five mistakes again this year. Here are three examples:
- He Needs To Lose the Shtick: Last year, the President got some groans when he made a cheesy quip about salmon and another about pat downs. He did it again this year when he said, “We got rid of one rule from 40 years ago that could have forced some dairy farmers to spend $10,000 a year proving that they could contain a spill – because milk was somehow classified as an oil. With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.” It’s fine if he wants to incorporate some humor, but he should try working outside of the Shecky Green school of comedy.
- He Should Reduce The Hushed Tone: When President Obama seeks to emphasize a key point, he uses a hushed tone, something akin to a “spoken whisper.” It’s a perfectly valid technique when used sparingly, but he used it dozens of times during the speech (from the very first sentence), reducing its impact on every subsequent use.
- Choose Bigger Stories: Every President since Ronald Reagan has used the SOTU to tell stories about a few “real people” in the audience. Well-chosen anecdotes can help bring abstract topics to life, and it is a good idea for speakers to alternate between general themes and specific examples. But I’m starting to wonder if the idea is so hackneyed at this point that it needs to be retired for a few years. Alternatively, the President could incorporate stories in a more genuine, heartfelt manner, such as recounting a personal encounter that moved or inspired him.
No single speech can accomplish everything, and I suspect the President will offer his vision for the next four years when he shifts more fully into campaign mode.
My overall takeaway? Mr. Obama is a tough competitor. In terms of the political calendar, he’s now in the middle of the third quarter, and his team is up by a point or two. The question is whether his opponent for the rest of the game is the Harlem Globetrotters or the Washington Generals.
Either way, he demonstrated many of the communications and political skills tonight that made him such a formidable opponent in 2008 – and he made clear that his opponent better bring his “A game” this fall.
COMMENTS? Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? Please leave your opinion in the comment section below, but remember the blog’s comment policy – no ad hominem attacks or pejorative name-calling will be posted.
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I have to agree with Dana Milbank commenting in today’s Washington Post that the SOTU was flat. I think Obama, like you said, doesn’t know how to articulate a vision, and instead harps on things–like Congress passing (or not) legislation. In my opinion, Obama came across almost a bit juvenile with all the finger-pointing. And, I thought that relying on the sympathy for the military was a bit cliche.
Thanks for your comment. One of the challenges with “spot analysis” is that I don’t have the benefit of hindsight when writing these pieces. Now that I do, here are a couple of additional thoughts:
1. First, you’re right. The speech was small and tactical, and failed to articulate a bold national vision.
I started to write a paragraph last night (and then deleted it , for length purposes) that noted his frequent calls for Congress to deliver something to him, but only rarely said he’d initiate a plan and deliver it to them. When the Democratic Congress obstructed President Reagan, he made his case directly to the American people. President Obama is playing it safe by not doing the same.
2. The reason I rated this speech highly had less to do with the actual speech, and more to do with how it positioned him for a general election run. The speech itself fell flat, but I suspect his talking point about class warfare will play well.
In the end, I suspect this speech won’t matter much.
Thanks for reading,
As always, enjoyed the analysis and insight. I have to agree with Deborah that this SOTU was flat and uninspiring. As you point out the speech was a short-term goal event and will quickly slip into obscurity — much like other SOTU speeches — but c’mon, don’t we deserve better?
When I watch a SOTU address, I want less finger-pointing and campaign prep and more about what “our employees” have accomplished, what needs to be done and how they are going to do it. Like so many other times, we mostly got dinner theater IMHO.
So the President’s speech achieved its 2012 election groundwork goals. But as speeches go, it did not inspire, it did not have a “wow” factor that would have the country talking about it for days, weeks. Nothing legacy-worthy in it. The speech was — as you say — very safe — and he came across more as reading it than speaking to us. The speechwriting was mostly rhetoric and really didn’t play into any of the President’s speaking strengths.
Essentially he came across as a politician looking to get re-elected, not a statesman or leader of the Free World.
Maybe I’m putting the bar too high, but anyone seeking high office like the Presidency needs to bring the A-Game at every opportunity if he or she wants to lead more than 300 million people.
And from a professional speaking point, is it too much to ask that he stop flopping his hands on the podium? Seems like every 20 seconds “thud,” “thud.” 😉
I’d have a tough time disagreeing with any of your well-made points. I’m always struck by what a Rorschach Test these speeches become. Based on the chatter in the pundit class this morning, it seems your views are very much in line with the majority opinion.
Great observation regarding his hand flopping. May I also add a note about VP Biden’s tie? He should know better to wear a pattern that leads to a “shimmy” effect on television. I found myself thoroughly distracted by it throughout the speech.
Thanks, as always, for reading,
Yes, the whisper for emphasis thing is overdone, and highlighting citizens in the audience is high on the cheesiness factor. Thought including Warren Buffet’s secretary was a good idea, however. I agree with you re Obama’s optimism and how he tries to catch the mood of the country – “it’s just not right.”
Great observation regarding Warren Buffet’s secretary! You’re right that that moment worked well – probably because it was an unusual anecdote that broke the pattern of “ordinary” Americans who are used as mere props when making a larger point.