Will Obama’s State of the Union spur action?

Speechwriting experts say the president’s first speech to Congress of his second term was deftly crafted and delivered, but that doesn’t mean it’ll bridge partisan chasms nor get meaningful legislation passed.


President Obama’s call for “smarter government,” not larger government, during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address aimed to appease Republicans while defusing one of that party’s most persistent criticisms of the country’s Democratic chief executive.

Speechwriters seem to agree that the speech was crafted with precision and delivered well, but just how effective was the president when it came to making inroads with the opposition? That’s not so clear.

Strengths

Emerald Partners President Fraser Seitel says this year’s State of the Union was “an excellent speech,” pointing out its strong opening allusion to President John F. Kennedy, its clear thesis of elevating the middle class, its organized structure, and its strong conclusion with an emotional call for gun control.

The delivery was passionate as Obama used the bully pulpit of the presidency well, says executive speechwriter Ian Griffin, who graded the speech an A.

“As a speaker, he exuded confidence and a masterful control of cadence,” Griffin says. “The high point was the rounds of applause when he spoke on gun control. By listing all the families and individuals who ‘deserve a vote’ while speaking over the applause, he highlighted the strength of his determination to begin to address this issue in front of an assembly who are often held hostage by the influence of the NRA.”

Bob Lehrman, who was a speechwriter for former Vice President Al Gore, said the speech was “full of story and memorable lines.”

“While Obama was clearly delivering a partisan message, he never demonized Republicans,” Lehrman says.

Plus, Lehrman says, this year’s speech was the first State of the Union ever to have no passive voice whatsoever. “I’m probably the only person who cares about this,” he says.

Weaknesses

Hal Gordon, a former speechwriter for Gen. Colin Powell, gave the speech a C+, noting that the “smarter government” line included the phrase, “that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”

“Can anyone explain to me how a government ‘that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth’ is not going to become a bigger government in the process?” he asks. “Mr. Obama seems to take it for granted that allowing government to direct the economy is ‘smarter’ government. ”

Seitel says the speech is something of a microcosm of the Obama presidency and that it will likely be more nice ideas from President Obama that never come to fruition.

“He doesn’t seem willing or interested in following through on his powerful rhetoric,” he says. “That’s why climate control and the new minimum wage will be DOA. Gun control—even though it should be a no-brainer—will have trouble passing, and only immigration reform seems likely.”

The proof, Seitel says, is in the leaving. This spring Obama is heading to the Middle East, where he won’t be butting heads with the GOP leadership that will oppose much of his agenda.

The power of online supplements

During the day leading up to President Obama’s State of the Union speech and on the day after it, the White House looked to interest people not only in what the address contained, but also in the story of those words.

Throughout the day Tuesday, the White House website featured a detailed, four-minute video about the making of the speech, full of interviews with staffers and speechwriters.

On Wednesday, visitors to the White House site could watch an “enhanced” version of the State of the Union that included charts and graphs with contextual information.

Speechwriter John Watkis says the making-of video was captivating.

“I think it would be a good video to show CEOs who only read their speech five minutes before they’re supposed to deliver it,” he says.

Mike Long, a speechwriter and instructor of writing and public relations at Georgetown University, says online, supplemental material is the future of “the big speech,” but warned communicators not to overvalue it. They’re great, but they’re no miracle cure, he warns.

“Speeches are primarily emotional experiences,” Long says. “Post-event handouts don’t affect that.”

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