SOC prof assesses State of the Union

Adjunct Professor Robert Lehrman teaches speechwriting in the School of Communication. He worked as a speechwriter for many Democratic political figures, most notably former Vice President and presidential candidate Al Gore. Lehrman recently penned the book “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion.” He also wrote a State of the Union response in 1989 when George H.W. Bush was president.

Q: Was Obama’s State of the Union address successful?

A: Yes, except for people hostile to him. It was compelling only at times, but remember, it’s hard to make a speech compelling when you have to tick off a billion proposals one after the other. And he should have shortened it. Seventy minutes is too long unless you’re Fidel Castro. As for success? He needed to do three balancing acts: one, admit blame to mollify the disappointed but remind us of success; two, refocus on the issues — like jobs — that sent Scott Brown to the Senate, but show that he hasn’t given up on the issues that got him to the White House and three, show people we don’t just have a cerebral president but a likeable one. I think he did all three.

Q: How effective was he at getting his message across?

A: Well, what was his message? In the narrow sense, you might say it was that the economy and jobs come first. He made that clear from the start. But the larger issue was this: that he has faith we can recover. Some people compare that message to Reagan’s, especially in 1982, but actually every president expresses faith in the future. It’s a job requirement ... Not original, but pretty effective, I thought.

Q: In his speech, Obama made jabs at the Republican leadership as well as the recent Federal Election Commission v. Citizens United Supreme Court case. Do you think he was being too aggressive?

A: Absolutely not. These are important issues and people in the chamber are grown-ups. They can take it. Obama was right to make the argument — and remember, he wasn’t just the editor of the Harvard Law Review, he taught law for ten years. He doesn’t just have some adviser briefing him; he’s an expert. But I’ll tell you one thing I can’t understand: the criticism of [Justice Samuel] Alito for mouthing “not true.” I don’t like Alito’s opinion, but he took great care in reaching it. What’s wrong with a small, civil response about a huge issue after the president had just attacked him before 40 million people? I don’t get it.

Q: Since Obama spent the vast majority of his speech talking about jobs and/or the economy, do you think we can gauge this as a turning point in his presidency?

A: This moment might be — but not the speech. He’ll get a bump in the polls from this speech. But people will judge him by his acts, not his words.

Q: Compared to his recent rhetoric, health care was only mentioned for a relatively small fraction of the speech. What can we take from that editorial position?

A: First, that he sees voters want him to focus on jobs. Second, that he hasn’t given up on it. Third, that he doesn’t want to lock himself into some concrete promise about it, this soon after Massachusetts. All sensible.

Q: ... As for Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s Republican response?

I once wrote one of those. It made me realize there’s not a single time in a president’s term where he goes head to head with the other side. That’s too bad and not necessary. They do it in England. Once a week the prime minister goes over to the House of Commons and takes questions. No moderator, they just argue back and forth. You can actually see the real arguments — and whether they know things ... Why can’t we have that here?

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