Balancing Vision And Details In State Of The Union

Paul Glastris, former speech writer, Clinton White House
Peter Robinson, former speech writer, Reagan White House

Balancing Vision And Details In State Of The Union — Presidents often use the State of the Union to share their long term goals, but the speeches can also be laundry lists of agenda items. Two former White House speechwriters weigh in on what Obama should say in his second State of the Union address.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Tonight on Capitol Hill, one of the great set pieces of American government.

Unidentified Man #1: I have a distinguished honor of presenting to you the president of the United States.

Unidentified Man #2: Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States.

Unidentified Man #3: Mr. Speaker...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #3: ...the president of the United States.

CONAN: President Barack Obama will clasp hands, wave and hug as we walks to the rostrum to deliver the State of the Union message. There will be more than a few changes from last year. The most obvious - a new speaker of the House, John Boehner reflecting Republican gains last November.

But it's a grand opportunity to address the American people for an hour in primetime. These speeches tend to include some overarching themes and long-term goals, yes, but also laundry lists of agenda items.

So what do you want to hear from the president tonight? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

As has become our custom, we've invited former presidential speech writers Paul Glastris and Peter Robinson to join us. Now, editor in chief of The Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris wrote for Bill Clinton. He's here in Studio 3-A. Nice to have you back.

Mr. PAUL GLASTRIS (Editor in Chief, The Washington Monthly): Glad to be here.

CONAN: And Peter Robinson wrote for Ronald Reagan and joins us from the campus at Stanford University, where he's a research fellow at The Hoover Institution. And welcome back to you as well.

Mr. PETER ROBINSON (Research Fellow, The Hoover Institution): A pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: And let's begin with you, Peter Robinson. What do you think the president needs to get done tonight?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, he needs to - in my judgment, he needs to crack a joke, frankly. He's got a problem. The people have concluded that he's aloof and distant and kind of intensely intellectual. People across the board, people who oppose him and people who are his supporters, I -actually, we can talk about policy, what his policy moves, but I'm interested to hear what Paul says - has to say about this.

But my feeling is the man needs to come across as human. He ought to crack a joke. If possible, he ought to follow the Ronald Reagan practice of spending a moment or two at the beginning of the speech cheering everybody up. He has the particular problem that he needs to say something, somewhat self-deprecating to get over the awkwardness of having a new speaker behind him and 63 new Republican members in the House in front of him.

If he can make a joke about that, put everyone at ease, that actually may be his best shot at making this speech memorable tonight. If he just comes across as human and relaxed, fallible and capable of cracking a joke.

CONAN: A funny thing happened as I went to meet Nancy Pelosi...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: That would be a good start, actually.

CONAN: Paul Glastris, would you agree?

Mr. GLASTRIS: I would. I think it's a great idea, and I recall Harry Truman after his first midterm shellacking, cracking a joke, something along the lines of it looks like the last - since the last time I was here, more of you moved onto this side of the aisle. So I think it's a great idea.

CONAN: I gather he didn't hire Henny Youngman to help him with that but...

Mr. GLASTRIS: Well, it was probably a better joke than I'm telling it but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The opportunity, this is a set piece of government. He's laying out his agenda. And to some degree, I guess, with divided government, laying out an agenda that may reflect his re-election campaign come two years' time. But as - this is a great opportunity to speak to the American people, maybe as Paul Robinson just suggested for the first 10 minutes or so, anyway.

Mr. GLASTRIS: Yes. But, you know, let's remember this is - you're absolutely right. He - this is the first speech of his re-election, and it is - as in any State of the Union, the blueprint for how he wants to govern for the next year, maybe two years. So what he's really got to do is substantively shift from - and this is the theme that people are saying, you know, in the administration, he's going to do - shift from emergency, we had to save ourselves from devastation, from - to now I'm focused like a laser on job creation and the long-term competitive future of the country.

CONAN: And the broad message would you agree, Peter Robinson?

Mr. ROBINSON: Yes. I - by the way, I liked your intro, Neal. I liked it so much I wrote down the phrase - a grand opportunity to address the country in primetime.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: That's why you've got that job. That's wonderful. We now have divided government. The House is not going to permit - the House now controlled by Republicans simply will not permit large legislative matters like reform of health care to go through again over the next two years, nor can the Republicans repeal large matters, such as, again, health care, that got enacted over the next - over the last two years. So we have a divided government. Large matters of substance just won't happen.

The president's opportunity tonight, I believe, is to begin a large, serious two-year argument making an honest defense about his understanding of the role of government in the lives of Americans. I actually think he needs to do that. He needs to - if he simply tries to make gestures and soothing words and so forth and - that's going to be a weakness for him. Because in that audience, he has Republicans who are, maybe for the first time since Ronald Reagan, really articulate, Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor. This is a new thing for a Republican like me to get use to, Republicans who are intent, serious and capable of sustaining an argument.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Jeff(ph) in Cotati, California. I'll tell you one thing I don't want to hear, frequent, incessant clapping. It interrupts the flow of the speech. It looks like little more than a -than self-important grandstanding.

And well, Peter Robinson, we do have a new sitting arrangement tonight, at least in part. Members are stepping across the aisle in - I guess, advocating the Third Way ideas of Senator Udall.

Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah. That's a problem. You're not going to hear any president say, please, hold your applause.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I suspect you're right about that. But will the seating, you know, mean less partisan?

Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, I think so. I think so. I think everybody got sick over the last couple of State of the Union addresses, particularly the members of Congress. It made Congress as a whole, I think, look small. When one side would stand up, while the other side was slow in rising, some would glower, some would cheer. And you could see it so sharply divided in the chamber by party. I do think this new sitting arrangement is likely to produce more of a sense of normality, ordinary Americans listening to this man. Yeah. I think that's an improvement. Yes.

CONAN: And Paul Glastris, obviously, the president will want to reference the events in Tucson. The intern who played such a part in, perhaps, saving the life of Congresswoman Giffords will be there in the first lady's box. That has become a staple, who sits there, who gets the acknowledgement.

Mr. GLASTRIS: That's right. And coming off of this very impressive, difficult speech that he had to give at Tucson, and I fully expect that he'll utilize - the speechwriters will utilize some of the themes and language of that and pop it right into the State of the Union, and well they should.

CONAN: All right. Now, here's an email - this is from Joe(ph). I want to hear President Obama make reference to the ongoing event in Tunisia and, perhaps, also now Egypt and the demonstrations there as well today.

Peter Robinson, is it wise to use this event to address foreign policy?

Mr. ROBINSON: Boy, if I were a speechwriter, I'd feel a very powerful urge to put in something about current events. Yes, I would - so speaking as a speechwriter, I'd say yes. Speaking as a speechwriter who knows a little bit about the way the bureaucracy works, the idea that the State Department would figure out what would be permissible to say in time to include it in the speech tonight, particularly since we know - what was it over a year, 18 months or so ago, when there were demonstrations in Iran, and this president, this administration was very cautious. It took three or four days, as I recall, for the president to say anything substantive about it. I'd love to see him comment. I think the bureaucracy will make that very difficult for him to do.

Mr. GLASTRIS: Yeah, it only happens if they overrule the bureaucracy. Remember, Secretary of State Clinton had some very harsh words about Arab autocracies. But we've just had Hezbollah electing the leader of Lebanon. So I think that he probably will go lightly on talk of democracy in the Arab world.

CONAN: Let's go next to John(ph) in San Antonio.

JOHN (Caller): Yeah. What I'd like to hear tonight is really the president taking a bold step forward and setting a national agenda that we can all get behind, that will also help with - towards more jobs. And specifically, what I'd like to see him do is something like Kennedy did say, that by the end of this decade, we will become energy independent. And I'll take comments off the air.

CONAN: All right, John. Thanks very much. Energy independence and oft-stated goal, is it - is this the opportunity, Peter Robinson, to do a Kennedy-like declaration?

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, I hope not. I hope not because - well, John Kennedy said we'd reached the moon by the end of the decade and we did. That's the only - we'll-do-it-within-a-decade that's worked that I'm aware of.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROBINSON: Energy independence, I think the first president to say we'd be energy independent by some fixed point was Richard Nixon.

Mr. GLASTRIS: That's right.

Mr. ROBINSON: And we are more and more dependent. That is just - I remember chatting - this was a few years. I happened to be in the West Wing office with my buddy, Bill McGurn, who was then the chief speechwriter to George W. Bush. It was the night before he - the State of the Union. We were chatting. He was waiting for a new draft. We were going to go out for dinner. And I said, Bill, will you just do me a favor? Will you just tell me that the president doesn't call for the 27th year in a row of ethanol subsidies? And Bill had a statue of a free market, governor of Hong Kong - Bill had spent time in Hong Kong - on his bookshelf. And Bill, who would not say a word against his president, simply stood up and turned the statue to face the wall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: That's the way speechwriters - so, no. I just - that would be - people like me would say, oh, for goodness sake. Say something serious. Say something you mean. Say something you're going to do.

Mr. GLASTRIS: How about let's cut all subsidies to all energy industries and try to - try to cut the deficit that way? And we have a story in the current issue of the Washington Monthly calling for it. So...

Mr. GLASTRIS: Do you really?

CONAN: Just wait. By coincidence...

Mr. ROBINSON: (Unintelligible) I'm with you on that, Paul. I'm with you on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLASTRIS: Yeah. I think a lot of people would be with you on that.

CONAN: Here's an email from Don(ph) in Massachusetts. I would like President Obama to address how the new health care policy will relate to his economic plan from this point forward. There's been little information that's been given to U.S. residents as to how they will fund this plan.

And was that - is this the occasion to do that? Is this the occasion to rally, to the degree he can, the public around his health care plan?

Mr. GLASTRIS: I think he will. I think he can. I think it's bigger than - I think it's bigger than how does health care plan affect me. It's health care plan as a part of the larger vision that the president has yet to paint of what his policies amount to in terms of an economic theory: how are all of disparate things that hes done related to each other? And the president has gotten this sort of allowed himself to be seen as a kind of responding to events in a experimental, practical, pragmatic way, which is true, but he needs to weave them together in a narrative that people can understand: this is his theory of how the economy is going to change.

And more than that, he needs to explain to the American people how theyre going to fit in. How am I going to be able to get ahead in this new economy that youre talking about? How are my kids going to be able to get ahead? So its a high bar, but I think its one that he would be well worth trying to achieve.

CONAN: But Peter Robinson...

Mr. ROBINSON: Second time in, what, three minutes now, I agree with every word that Paul uttered. And I take it a step further. Because he came to office in a time of national emergency, economic emergency, I believe theres an opportunity for people for him to get cut a little bit of slack on the part of the public. If he says, we were trying emergency measures, we are moving quickly, we had to face the emergency, we got certain things wrong, he has an opportunity to back away from certain steps that hes taken in these last two years. He can get cut some slack. He can the administration is fond of the term reset.

They have been resetting this policy and resetting that policy. He has an opportunity tonight to reset himself. And Pauls notion that he has the opportunity to present a comprehensive economic model. What does he have in mind? Where does he want to take us? I actually that fits with my notion that this is the moment to begin his side of the national argument.

CONAN: Lets go next to Michael(ph), Michael with us from Oakland.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi, thank you. Yeah, theres several things Id like to hear from Obama tonight. I think I wont hear them, but here they are. Id like to be out of Iraq and Afghanistan before 2014. Id like the powers to stop spying on Americans, stop phone taps, stop national security letters, stop targeting citizens for assassination overseas, stop denying people habeas corpus, cut the defense budget in half, to $300 billion, remove most of our, what, 700 bases across the world, increase the tax on the rich, increase the tax - corporate tax, declare the Social Security and Medicare off limits, and no austerity program...

CONAN: Michael, I can understand why you would like to hear those things, but thats not President Obama.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: Right. So well, thats my point, isnt it?

CONAN: OK. Wait for another election and see who you...

MICHAEL: Thats my point. I mean, if youre saying that if we dont agree with him that somehow thats not a legitimate thing to say...

CONAN: No, no, no. I think its perfectly legitimate, Im just saying that...

MICHAEL: I disagree with you there.

CONAN: No, its a perfectly legitimate opinion to have, but its not going to happen, and as you mentioned, those things that you mentioned are not in the speech, but I think with the exception of Iraq and Afghanistan. And Paul Glastris, he is on track to have troops out of Iraq down to, what, a little over 50,000 in Iraq, and they should be out by the end of next year, according to plan.

Mr. GLASTRIS: Right.

CONAN: And, well, Afghanistan, thats a little bit more debatable.

Mr. GLASTRIS: A little bit more complicated, but some withdrawal certainly will happen in July of next year. Almost everything that the gentleman said the first few items, in fact, the president did campaign on, made promises to, has made, you know, partial progress on some of them. But the rest, he simply didnt run on, and so no expectation that hell deliver on those.

CONAN: Heres an email from Dwan(ph) in Boston: How can an opposition party prepare a meaningful response to the State of the Union address right after the speech? Was the draft of the speech delivered by the opposition party to the opposition party well ahead of time?

Paul Robinson, you mentioned Congressman Ryan. He will be delivering the official the announcement. And Peter, have you ever had to draft the opposition response?

Mr. ROBINSON: No, I have never had to draft the opposition response. I very much doubt that the White House would give them the a draft of the presidents remarks any sooner than they release it to the press generally. And it is that is actually an extremely tricky speech to give, because you want to defer to the president of the United States because he is the president of the United States. Theres something in the Republican bones that isnt even sure there ought to be a televised response immediately after the State of the Union address.

Its hard to come on the air. Youre simply there in a little studio, in front of a camera. The president just commanded the attention of the entire Congress, hard to think that youre not going to look small to people. Just the whole setting is very difficult, particularly, as I say, for Republicans who tend to want to defer to the president...

Mr. GLASTRIS: Peter, has anyone ever given has any one opposition party ever given a good one of those responses?

Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah. Fred Thompson, I thought, gave a good one. I cant recall the year. But Fred Thompson gave a pretty good one, largely because Fred Thompson was so folksy and relaxed it wasnt it didnt have a sense of a sharp-edged rebuttal. Well see...

CONAN: More than a few have given notably bad ones.

Mr. ROBINSON: Right. Oh, yes, thats exactly right. Poor Bobby Jindal, who I think is a highly impressive young man, the governor of Louisiana. But his answer to the State of the Union address went kerklunk.

Mr. GLASTRIS: And now were going to have two, right?

CONAN: Because Michele Bachmann is giving an unofficial response as well, representing, I guess, the tea party caucus. So...

Mr. ROBINSON: Right. Are you guys going to cover that? That, to me, is an interesting question for the media? Will you cover Michele Bachmann?

CONAN: Well certainly cover it. Whether well carry it live, I dont know because Im not involved with the coverage.

Mr. GLASTRIS: CNN will.

CONAN: So well, there you go.

Mr. ROBINSON: CNN will, will they?

CONAN: OK. Well, anyway...

Mr. ROBINSON: That complicates Paul Ryans life even more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, wasnt simple to begin with, as the chairman of the Budget Committee. But anyway, thank you gentlemen, both. Well be watching with interest tonight. Paul Glastris, now editor in chief of the Washington Monthly, and Peter Robinson, who is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and joined us from the campus at Stanford University.

Tomorrow, the day after the State of the Union, political junkie Ken Rudin will be with us. Join us for that. Im Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

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