Let’s pretend that of all the masterful communicators available, President Obama picks you to draft his State of the Union address.
What do you do and what do you recommend?
To begin, of course, you must assess the context of the speech, i.e., whom is he addressing and what is the environment in which he is speaking.
• The audience is a nation clearly divided about this president’s performance; half disappointed and the other half satisfied, 50 percent rating him “mediocre” at best, the other 50 percent praising his steadiness.
• The environment is also one of division: Republicans hate Democrats, and vice versa. Those denied health care coverage in the past are overjoyed with the Affordable Care Act, while those who’ve suffered rising premiums curse its existence. Meanwhile, everybody hates the rich, and the 1 percent are ducking for cover.
Given this decidedly mixed bag, what kind of speech do you recommend that your president deliver?
• First, the tone must be positive, optimistic, conveying the clear impression that the nation is on the road back and better days lie immediately ahead. In other words, expressions of gloom and doom, of divisiveness and negativity, shouldn’t be uttered. No whining allowed.
• Second, accordingly, the delivery should be crisp, confident, and straightforward, long on logic and substantive content and less long on the hallmark emotion that once distinguished this president as an orator, but more recently has become suspect as presidential initiatives have fallen short of rhetorical promises.
• Third, in terms of that substantive content, the president must forgo the standard laundry list that plagues most State of the Union addresses and renders them instantly forgotten. Instead, he should break new ground by homing in on one overriding theme—specifically, to get the nation back to work through assistance for the roughly 27 million unemployed or underemployed Americans who want to work, private sector incentives and partnerships to spur employment, and training and education programs to ensure U.S. job readiness for the future.
Now that your client has delivered the goods to a far-from-breathless nation, how—objectively, without the cheerleading of MSNBC or the grousing of Fox News—did he do?
Well, as that revered patriot Larry David might put it, “Pretty, pretty good.”
From the very beginning when he launched into his, “Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student….”—Obama was upbeat, confident, and positive. In rapid-fire order, he listed areas where the U.S., in recent months, had made progress—lowering unemployment, improving housing, increasing manufacturing, and even—Are ya listening, Tea Partiers?—cutting the deficit in half.
“This can be a breakthrough year for America,” he insisted. And when, as proof, he pointed to a country “where the son of a barkeep” could grow up to be Speaker of the House, even his old adversary John Boehner (the self-same son and Speaker) had to give the president a reluctant thumbs-up.
Indeed, few could quibble with the resolutely positive tone.
Obama’s delivery echoed the confident tone. He was speaking naturally, comfortably, but without the cloying preaching that had started to rub many as an insincere theatrical device. Rather, the passion Obama delivered last night was more controlled and less flamboyant and, therefore, more believable.
He still used that left hand to jab and point and underscore his main messages. He still commanded that teleprompter to ensure that his words were right. And he still turned to his State of the Union custom using humans as props to hammer home his major points.
It was all carried out with an ease of presentation that suggested a man more interested in convincing people about the rightness of his arguments than the power of his oratory.
Obama wisely kept the focus—at least for three-quarters of the speech—right where it needed to be: on jobs, the economy, and getting the nation back to work. In keeping with the constructive tone, he didn’t browbeat but instead challenged Republicans to “work together to close those loopholes, end those incentives to ship jobs overseas, and lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs here at home.” He even punctuated his point by citing great capitalistic American companies, from Google and Apple to Verizon and Costco.
Then, with those Republicans rhetorically on board, he transitioned easily into more contentious territory: government infrastructure spending.
“We can take the money we save with this transition to tax reform,” he said, “to create jobs rebuilding our roads, upgrading our ports, unclogging our commutes—because in today’s global economy, first-class jobs gravitate to first-class infrastructure.” The Republicans in the chamber hardly knew what had hit ‘em.
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The only point the president began to lose his edge was near the end when the speech drifted into the obligatory gratuitous list of topics to satisfy interest groups—from women’s wages to voting rights to immigration and gun control to America’s role in the world. But when it seemed the traditional palaver might just torpedo an otherwise glowing performance, Obama had one more rhetorical surprise.
His conclusion was wrapped around the heartbreaking story of a battle-scarred Army Ranger, severely wounded on his 10th deployment to Afghanistan. The president took his time to talk, pausing deftly, as he traced the young man’s service history, courage and long battle through “dozens of surgeries, procedures, and hours of grueling rehab.”
Finally, as even Republicans welled up, Obama pointed to the soldier in the balcony, seated between the man’s father and the first lady. The crowd rose to its feet and roared, and the young man shot back a thumbs-up to his commander-in-chief.
For a president who hasn’t had too many of them lately, this was a thumbs-up kind of night.
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, commentator, author and teacher for 40 years. He teaches public relations at NYU and is the author of the Prentice-Hall textbook "The Practice of Public Relations," now in its eleventh edition. He can be reached at email@example.com.