From the time I was a pup of a press secretary on Capitol Hill, the night of the State of the Union address has been magical for me. In the Senate in the 1970s, we’d spend most of the day gleaning insights on the speech and then press our White House friends to get a sneak peak at the advance text so we could start preparing responses for our boss. “Pleased the President announced this initiative,”... “Troubled he did not include that.”
Because it was a work night, I’d usually watch in my office in the Russell Senate building and start crafting responses for press releases and radio feeds to local stations. Only once did I get to watch the speech on the floor of the House, many years later when I worked for the President who gave the speech – Bill Clinton in 1996.
State of the Union addresses– like inauguration speeches, convention acceptance speeches, and presidential debates – are among the few public appearances by those who would lead our nation as chief executive which take on enormous importance in proposing a vision and direction for the nation. That’s why official Washington gears up to provide response, reaction, and commentary. We have only a few “set pieces” in American politics that are institutionalized; where the public knows something important will happen. The State of the Union is one of them.
As a Democrat, I have often been on the opposite side of an incumbent President in preparing the official response to the State of the Union. What a thankless task. No matter how hard the opposition tries and no matter how creative the format of the response (and believe me, they ALL have been tried over the many years), the public really wants to hear from the President and to think about how THEY respond...not the party on the outs. There is a small group of us who, every time we have a Democrat in the White House, email each other on the night of the address to proclaim, “Thank God we are not doing the official response tonight.”
That’s not a surrender to the President and the power of the bully pulpit. It’s a recognition of reality that it is the President’s night. And Presidents and their White House staffs must use the opportunity wisely.
During the Clinton years, we prepared months in advance for a State of the Union. Agencies and outside groups lobbied for mention of pet proposals. Cabinet secretaries shed tears if a favorite idea was edited out and went drifting to the wasteland of the “Fact Sheet” prepared by the White House to encompass all the spiffy new initiatives that did not quite rate a mention in the speech itself.
The speech became something of a road map for the year ahead. What initiatives will the President push? What are the highest priorities? Where does he draw the line when it comes to negotiations with a Congress of a different mind?
In recent years, the speech has also become a focus point for associations, groups, and organizations who want to drive an issue higher on the list of things the American public should consider. Many hours are spent deciding how best to highlight an issue or how to take advantage of engaging in debate on a subject the President might mention. For many outside the White House, the State of the Union becomes their roadmap, too.
In our current environment in Washington, some might dismiss the night of the State of the Union as another when popular TV or a basketball game might be more rewarding. And sometimes the President’s message is distracted by something else (how well I remember that as a Clinton veteran). I am sure that President Obama’s team is trying to seize this moment to create a new narrative around the remaining years of his presidency.
At Public Strategies Washington, we have been advising clients on how to take advantage of this rare moment in politics when most of us pay attention. Our collective attention span will lapse, but the State of the Union address provides some of those glimpses into our national political soul that often leave indelible memories.
Mike McCurry, partner at PSW, was White House press secretary 1995-98 and now serves as co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates.