Political Animal


February 11, 2013 9:29 AM A Very Complicated Speech Opportunity

By Ed Kilgore

One of the pervasive myths of American politics is that the president, as the preacher at the “bully pulpit,” has a regular ability to significantly change public opinion, and thus should be held responsible for its direction (positive or adverse). That’s not much true, political scientists tell us, but the conscious or unconscious subscription to it by so many observers tends to affect expectations going into the one annual speech when the President can at least be sure to dominate broadcast and cable news for a couple of days: the State of the Union Address.

Obama’s getting a ton of unsolicited advice for tomorrow’s SOTU, and adding it up makes you realize he’s at a juncture in his presidency where “three-dimensional chess” doesn’t even begin to describe the complexity of his burden of persuasion. He has to “frame” the upcoming battles (currently trending towards disaster and hysteria) over the appropriations sequester and the continuing appropriations resolution. That means articulating both a short-term message offering hope and assigning blame as final negotiations begin, while clarifying a very muddled long-term presidential message on the relationship between the economy and the federal budget.

But speaking of the economy, Obama also needs to find or rediscover a reasonably coherent “job-creating” agenda aside from repulsing the austerity policies of the GOP, even if it’s just the usual Democratic prescription (instantly rejected by congressional Republicans these days) of more spending on infrastructure, a vague commitment to trade expansion, and then various initiatives and investments in education and training. Since comprehensive immigration reform is actually moving forward in Congress, however fitfully, he needs to make if at all possible an economic case for that legislation lest the chattering classes accuse him of (once again!) getting “distracted” by liberal social goals from his primary responsibilities. Given the grim struggle going on at the state level over GOP efforts to sabotage implementation of the Affordable Care Act, it would be very helpful if the president succeeded in doing something he did only fitfully during his first term: making the case that completing health care reform is crucial to the economic future of the country and of many millions of individuals, and is the key to long-term fiscal responsibility.

And oh, yeah, Obama also has to talk about gun violence, and figure out how to maintain the broad equality theme of his second inaugural address. And he must address all these challenges in the context of (a) how he chooses to describe an opposition party that seems to have learned very little from the 2012 elections, knowing that (b) media treatment of his speech could well focus on such ephemera as how “commanding” he is perceived as being, not to mention how positive or negative the Orange Man standing behind him appears while signaling his troops on when to stand, sit, applaud or glower.

All in all, I wouldn’t blame the president for hoping Pope Benedict’s resignation—or for that matter, the current MSM excitement over the SOTU response being offered by The Savior of the Republican Party, Marco Rubio—takes away some of the attention.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • JMG on February 11, 2013 10:04 AM:

    Political journalists making more than $250,000 a year, the only ones we see on TV, ALWAYS find fault with the SOTU's of Democratic Presidents. Public opinion likes all SOTU's regardless of the President's party.

  • c u n d gulat on February 11, 2013 10:29 AM:

    Here's what Obama's SOTU should be - short, sweet, and to the point:

    "God knows that I'm going my best!

    But thanks to you morons in the voting public who keep electing and reelecting Nihilists... er, uhm... Republicans for the House, we can't get out from under the disaster that the last Nihilist... er, uhm... Republican President caused, and most of you voted me into office to fix.

    And HIS Democratic Presidential predecessor spent 8 years undoing what the last two Nihil... er, uhm... Republican Presidents took 12 years to ruin.

    You people are really feckin' stupid.

    You wanna great country?

    Oh, and:
    -Keep your feckin' noses out of other people's sex lives.

    -Keep your feckin' noses out of other people's religions.

    -Keep your feckin' noses out of women's lady parts.

    -Stop caring about whether or not you're still doing feckin' better than the black and brown poeple down the block.
    And if you are still doing better, if you keep voting for these Nihilists, you won't be for feckin' long - 'cause we'll all be in the same feckin' sh*thole, you feckin' ijits!

    -And stop feckin' cheering on every single rich idiot from the Military Industrial Comples who's clammoring for war, and his feckin' buddy, your favorite guy on FOX, because you need to know that THEY won't be the ones fighting it -YOU, YOUR children, and/or grandchildren will!

    Just follow "The Golden Rule," and give me a Democratic House and Senate in 2 years, then sit down, STFU, and know that I've got it from there.

    Someone remind me again about why I wanted to be the President of a nation that's almost half full of idiots, morons, racists, misogynists, xenophobes, and/or homophobes. And almost all of them armed, no less?!?!

    I must have been drunk 6 years ago when I decided to run.

    And I must really have been epically feckin' stewed to even think of wanting to be reelected to lead this "Idiotocracy.

    I QUIT!!!
    So, now what, you're probably asking yourselves?

    Speaker Boehner, give me that flask in your jacket pocket.
    I'm outta here."

  • emjayay on February 11, 2013 10:30 AM:

    He should try to include something that will get some Republican to yell something stupid again. Then have the class monitor immediately escort him or her to the principal's office.

  • c u n d gulag on February 11, 2013 10:31 AM:

    Ok, maybe not so short...

  • sgetti on February 11, 2013 10:34 AM:

    Tough to give a big broadcast speech when it's Lindsey Graham's turn to yell out "You lie". Really, at this stage of party identity implosion, how many wingnuts will try to outdo each other trying to spoil/soil the speech? What's the Vegas over/under on peanut gallery outbursts tomorrow night?

    Maybe SOTU outbursts will become the new drinking game.

  • Kathryn on February 11, 2013 10:42 AM:

    If only, CUND Gulag......I too have wondered if there is a plan for removing a congressman who acts out, I hope so, have the Sargeant-at-arms or whoever, escort out before of finishing speech. Wouldn't it be wonderful if he made it crystal clear that unless bother houses are strongly democratic, it will be gridlock for this whole term. We are not dealing with a loyal opposition .

  • Wally on February 11, 2013 10:49 AM:

    When's the last time a State of the Union speech had the slightest effect on political action or discourse? Who can quote a line from a SOTU speech? I stopped watching them years ago, and don't even read about them in the paper the next day.

  • azportsider on February 11, 2013 11:26 AM:

    I'd love to see the President use the opportunity to warn the American public about the dangers of yellow snow, and then watch all the idiot rethuglicans race out to find some of that wondrous substance to eat.

  • Jill on February 11, 2013 1:00 PM:

    ...and what about climate change?

  • bdop4 on February 11, 2013 1:49 PM:

    I'll be satisfied if he stops framing the economy in terms of deficit reduction and states the obvious: economic recovery is a CONDITION PRECEDENT to meaningful debt reduction. FIX THE ECONOMY FIRST.

    Debate conservatives on those terms and we might start achieving some positive results.

  • gratuitous on February 11, 2013 3:25 PM:

    Yes, the power of the bully pulpit is overrated. Certainly, it's easy enough for the president to get Congress to do what it's been itching to do for months, if not years. Cf. the hideously misnamed USA PATRIOT Act.

    But the power of the bully pulpit is also underrated. Unfortunately, it's not well-suited to Democratic governance. While our Republican friends love saying and hearing the same thing over and over again (by the way, Happy Birthday, Sarah Palin), Democrats seem to think that if they say something once, that should be enough. Our positions are so self-evident and unassailable that simply throwing them out into the arena of ideas should be sufficient to win the day.

    It doesn't work that way, and if you're watching the current discussion about gun violence, you see that the public discourse is changing. Whatever President Obama says in the State of the Union will move the ball forward. But he and the Democrats in the House and Senate have to keep at it.

    It's not fun, and you feel like a damn fool saying the same thing for the umpteenth time, but it has to be done.

  • Zorro on February 11, 2013 3:35 PM:

    You mean the latest saviour of the Republican Party. That used to be Bobby Jindal, until he played Kenneth the Page a few years back.

    Coincidence time: first word in my CAPTCHA: Apostolic.


  • RaflW on February 11, 2013 4:14 PM:

    So Saturday morning on CNN, they breathlessly 'reported' that gun legislation was in trouble, because (get this) eight whole weeks after Newtown, Obama hadn't managed to pass a gin bill.

    Eight weeks! Peril! Lost momentum! May as well go home and give up!

    This was nooz? I generally avoid cable nooz, but was in a hotel and there was a TeeVee in the bathroom and I wanted blizzard updates.

    Eghad we have crappy nooz. President can't pass gun bill in eight weeks. No film at 11. Urp.