WASHINGTON — Former White House speechwriters reminisced Tuesday about their experiences in crafting State of the Union addresses and offered unsolicited advice to President Barack Obama as he speaks to a joint session of Congress in the last such address of his first term.
Chriss Winston, former speechwriter to President George H.W. Bush, said the State of the Union address is so important because it “is not just policy. It’s a political document, and almost a campaign document.”
Winston said in the panel hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center that it would be damaging for Obama to use a “hectoring, lecturing tone.” She hopes he will lay the possibility of some progress in Congress this spring and “extend the olive branch one more time,” she said.
Bob Lehrman, Vice President Al Gore’s former speechwriter, said he would like to see Obama concede some points to Republican lawmakers, while still making a clear comparison between the president and his opponents. Doing this would make Obama appear “reasonable,” Lehrman said.
In an election year when the president is focused on contrasting himself with the Republican presidential hopefuls, former George W. Bush speechwriter John McConnell said he would strongly advise Obama to avoid using straw men and vague arguments. “Make it a counterargument that is actually held by a person,” he said.
Lehrman agreed with McConnell, though he said he hated finding himself of like mind with a Republican. Lehrman said Obama uses weak or inauthentic examples too often. “You’re much more credible,” he said, “when you talk about a real person with a real quote.”
Vinca LaFleur, one of President Bill Clinton’s former speechwriters, said when she worked in the White House she viewed the State of the Union as a more policy-oriented speech — than a rhetorical one adorned with statements worthy of being engraved in marble. She said Clinton would host dinners with intellectuals and academics to build conversation that would be the foundation of many of his speeches.
McConnell, who helped write Bush’s address to the joint session of Congress after the 9/11 attacks, spoke about the difficulty of writing a cohesive, policy-centric address. The State of the Union is a tough speech to write, he said, because it is the presentation of the president’s legislative agenda for the year. He said a strong, overarching theme helps because there are many specific legislative requests on a variety of issues to weave together.
McConnell pointed to Obama’s central message last year of “Winning the Future” as a good example of a broad theme under which almost any topic can fall.
The panel also discussed Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and his delivery of the Republican response to Obama’s speech.
Winston said Daniels should talk critically about Obama’s record, but she stressed that he and other Republicans must also offer a positive alternative with a specific plan on the economy.
A video recording of the panel can be found here.