Speechwriters Offer Advice To Obama For Thursday

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Thursday, President Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. NPR's Ken Rudin, former Clinton White House speechwriter Paul Glastris and former Reagan White House speechwriter Peter Robinson talk about what the president should say to make his case for reelection.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

It's Wednesday, Political Junkie day. Ken Rudin is with us here in Studio 3A. Last week, Mitt Romney addressed the Republican convention and tried to convince voters he's the best choice to lead the country. Tomorrow evening, President Obama speaks to his party's convention in Charlotte and makes his case for another four years.

What do you want to hear from President Obama tomorrow? We're going to give you a new phone number. We're having difficulty with our system, so write it down: 202-513-2343. Again, that number: 202-513-2343. Email system still works: totn@npr.org. Excuse me. Email is talk@npr.org. That's an ancient email address. I apologize for that. Again, this week, we've invited former presidential speechwriters Paul Glastris and Peter Robinson to join us. Paul Glastris wrote speeches for Bill Clinton. He's currently editor-in-chief of The Washington Monthly. He's with us here in Studio 3A. Welcome back.

PAUL GLASTRIS: Nice to be here.

CONAN: Peter Robinson was a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan. He joins us from the campus at Stanford University where he's a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Peter, nice to have you back on the program.

PETER ROBINSON: A pleasure.

CONAN: And, Paul Glastris, what's the most important thing for tomorrow night's speech?

GLASTRIS: Neal, well, the most important thing for tomorrow night is for President Obama to weave the substantial achievements of the first four years into a picture for the public so that they know what he's done, remind them what he's done and leverage that into a vision of what's to come. We hear that he's going to be more specific about a second term agenda. I'm hoping he will. It's got to be rooted, though, in what he's already done.

CONAN: So as opposed to what the Republicans say, he can't run in his record, you say he must embrace his record.

GLASTRIS: That's right. And I thought - I think we began to see that in the last couple of days of the convention speeches and also if you've been following President Obama's speeches on the road, especially - I guess it was last night with Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, had a wonderful, powerful litany of everything, from the auto bailouts to Osama bin Laden. There's a lot there to work with. The man - Obama has, in sheer legislative tonnage, done more than any president in - since LBJ, really. Not everyone will agree that it was what should've been done. But nevertheless, he moved a lot of policy. And he needs to show that that is the basis of something better.

CONAN: Peter Robinson, what's the most important thing for you that President Obama needs to get done tomorrow night?

ROBINSON: If President Obama's writers are listening to Paul and making notes, I will be a happy man. Paul and I - I think I can get Ken Rudin to agree on this. Paul and I would be pretty good for democracy if our respective candidates just listen to us.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: In other words, Paul saying let the man run on his record and outline a substantive policy vision for the future. That's just what candidates should do. They should be honest with the American people about what they've done and what they intend to do. I would've liked Romney to have been heavier on a policy myself. I'll even throw in a little critique of my own candidate. I just - if I may ask you a question without sounding partisan, I'm baffled in that when you go to a convention, ordinarily there are some policy predicate laid down.

And, well, Ken, you were just interviewing Howard Dean a moment ago, and you said, well, what about the future? And Howard Dean said we're out of Iraq, but that's already happened. He mentioned Obamacare. That's already happened. And then he mentioned energy policy with - which is a relatively small part of the economy because energy - prices are already dropping because of natural gas. Even the former chairman of the DNC wasn't able to go click, click, click. Here's where the president stands. Here's what he wants to do. In other words, if he is substantive in a policy way tomorrow, and I hope he is, it'll come as - I think it'll come as something of a departure. Honestly, I'd love to hear how Paul addresses that.

CONAN: Paul?

GLASTRIS: Well, I think, remember, part of what he needs to do in the next four years is defend and expand upon what he's already done. So we have the largest domestic policy change in decades with the Affordable Care Act. There are things in that act that need to be husbanded and grown to help control health care costs. I hope that he's able to both talk about that achievement and say, all right. We've done this. I need to be reelected in part to defend it, because if I'm not, Mitt Romney will - has vowed to uproot it and throw it away. But we need to move beyond that.

CONAN: Ken.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: My theory has always been that if this is a referendum on Barack Obama, the last four years, this can be a tough road for him to get re-elected. But as he sets it off as a - the differences between what I'm offering and what the Republicans are offering, that's his real chance for another term. So I suspect to see less about his vision, unfortunately for Peter, the less about his vision and more about the deficiencies of Mitt Romney.

But, Peter, let me just say - ask a quick question about this.

ROBINSON: Yeah, yeah, Ken.

RUDIN: The role of former presidents - I mean, obviously, there's a lot of focus over what Bill Clinton has to say tonight. And the Republicans basically have gone to Ronald Reagan, who was deceased eight years, for their inspiration. But Bill Clinton seems to be more of an inspiration, and he's still around for the Democrats, than anybody else on the political stage.

ROBINSON: Yeah. To men, Clinton - and here I can speak with genuine - I'm saying the admiration even though I disagree in the policy sense, of course, as a conservative and a Republican. But Clinton has a way of bringing history forward into the present. Part of it is because he's a Southerner, part of this because he has, frankly, some of the same twinkle as FDR. But when you hear Bill Clinton talk about the Democratic Party, you feel, even I feel, that I'm being reminded of the great themes of the party, of the working man, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt 70 years ago, and all the work that this party has done for little people in all the decades since. It's a very impressive performance, because it's - it has - it's elevating it, roots the present moment in decades of American history.

CONAN: We are going - we gave you another number earlier in the program. Forget it. The good line is back up, 800-989-8255.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Email us: talk@npr.org. Paul Glastris, so you wrote for Bill Clinton. What do you expect to hear from him tonight?

GLASTRIS: Well, I think Bill Clinton is far and away the best policy substance speaker certainly in our lifetimes. And my guess is that what they're going to - what Bill Clinton's going to try to achieve is to explicate Mitt - the policy that Mitt Romney didn't talk about, that Peter referenced. You know, you could have watched that entire Republican convention and really not known what the agenda of the Republican Party is, other than they're for smaller government and a woman, sort of, right to life, and so very vague things.

He's going to go directly to explicating what the party platform is, what Mitt Romney's signed onto, what the Paul Ryan budget is, what - how they're going to voucherize(ph) Medicare, et cetera, et cetera. He's going to explain it in a way that it's never been explained. And to your point, Ken, he has going to set up that choice for Barack Obama. So it's very, very clear what the choice in this election is.

CONAN: What do you want to hear...

ROBINSON: I'll subscribe to - I subscribe to that entire analysis, substituting explicate - substituting mischaracterize for explicate.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: But other than that, I'm with you, Paul.

CONAN: 800-989-8255. We're going to get back to what you want to hear from President Obama tomorrow night. And we're going to start - and let's hope this works - Amy(ph), are you on the line with us from Detroit?

AMY: Yeah, this is me.

CONAN: Go ahead. You're on the air.

AMY: OK. So I care a lot about a lot of the issues that have come up. I recently got a PhD. I have tons of student loan debt. I care a lot about women issues. I'm gay, so I appreciate the Democrats' nod to gay rights. But I just want a job. So really, more than anything, all I want to know is how Obama is going to help me get a job.

CONAN: And that boils it right down to the nub. That, Paul Glastris, is what this election is about, no?

GLASTRIS: That's true, it is. Look, neither candidate really has a very good answer to how the caller can get a job tomorrow. That's the difficulty here. There are things that can be done for long-term economic growth. There are some things that could be done short term. But I think that's the heavy lift for both Obama and Romney.

CONAN: But what about the critique? We gave the president four years, he failed. Give the new guy a chance.

GLASTRIS: Well, I think what you heard from Michelle Obama - it made - you may hear also from Barack Obama, which is, this is hard work. Progress has been made. The metaphor of, we don't, you know, we don't - the progress in America is not a sprint, it's a relay. We're doing - we're making sacrifices for future prosperity. I think there's going to be a recognition that a turnaround is not right around the corner, but the ground is being laid for that, and good things are happening.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Amy, and we wish you the best of luck in your job hunt.

AMY: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Chris(ph) in Eden Prairie, Minnesota: I want to hear some passion from the president. I want him to take to heart Deval Patrick's call to get a backbone, stand on a Democratic record. There's one vote for the blusterous camp there.

This is Joe in Minneapolis: I'd like to see Obama reach out to the political setter and seriously unveil a plan to address the budget issues facing the U.S. government. He needs to express more than the usual raise taxes on the rich, Democratic rhetorics because simply raising taxes is not going to be enough. He needs to fight Paul Ryan's scary, but realistic, budget proposal with a realistic budget proposal of his own. Something based on Simpson-Bowles Commission would be ideal. That would be the best thing for this campaign, actual focus on critical issues, not the evasive vagueness we've seen from both sides of the aisle for far too long now.

And I guess, that's a vote for Peter Robinson's plan, specifics on that. Peter, in what way is a - an incumbent acceptance speech differed from a first-timer?

ROBINSON: Oh, jeez. Well, you know, I think back to my experience in 1984, the economy had turned around. Inflation was down to low-single digits. The slogan, Morning Again in America, actually made sense. It resonated people's experience. So Ronald Reagan was able to go to the convention and say, it worked. And in other words, the point is that incumbent simply has to address his record, what has - what he did and what has happened over the last four years.

And for - this is the piece of it that I can't quite - I know that I can hear enthusiasm in Paul's voice. And I can't quite see it because hope and change is now being replaced with groan and slog. It could be even worse. These are - that's just a harder speech to give.

CONAN: We're talking with former presidential speechwriters, Peter Robinson, as he mentioned, he wrote for Ronald Reagan. Paul Glastris wrote for Bill Clinton. He's with us here in Studio 3A, so is Political Junkie, Ken Rudin. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Maria on the line with us from Camp Hill in Pennsylvania.

MARIA: Yes, sir. I've always been an independent and voted according to who the man is. But because I'm a Latina woman, I have run to the Democratic Party. I don't walk anymore. I run to it. I am concerned because they are so anti-immigration, and I'm an advocate for the undocumented, and I'm thrilled that Obama has worked on this policy for the DREAM Act for children. Because I work with the undocumented, it affects the children that I have worked with for the last 10 years, and they are thrilled. They have now the ability to join the military. They're going to be able to vote, maybe, one day. But it's a huge improvement on immigration.

And I am Mexican-American. And we are the largest minority in this nation, and what we think and what we - and we may not be illegal, but someone in our family, typically, is, someone - almost every Mexican family has an undocumented person living in the United States.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. And, Peter Robinson, as you look at the demographics, as we look ahead, well, she's right. This is the growing - fastest-growing minority group. It's the largest minority group. And, well, Republicans say Barack Obama did not keep his promise on immigration reform. As she says, most - when you look at the polls, most Latinos run to the Democrats.

ROBINSON: Yeah, they do. And here I sit in California, so I'm aware of it from that point of view. And I happen to be married to a Cuban, so my kids are being raised as bilingual. So I'm pretty acutely aware of this. The argument that we need to enforce the rule of law at the border while welcoming immigrants who come to this country, just turns out to be really hard to make.

CONAN: Ken.

RUDIN: Peter, but when you think of...

ROBINSON: Yes, Ken, come in and save me, will you, please?

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Wait, wait.

ROBINSON: I can't get - I can't find my own out on that one.

RUDIN: But here's the thing, I mean, Mitt Romney has been accused of so many flip-flop, so-called flip-flops...

ROBINSON: Right.

RUDIN: ...over the last couple of years. And then - and you heard the kind of harsh rhetoric he had about immigration and immigrants during the primaries, how does he soften that view without being accused of a further flip-flop?

ROBINSON: There's a...

RUDIN: Peter, I couldn't - I'm sorry I couldn't rescue you. I'm sorry I couldn't rescue you first of all.

ROBINSON: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, no one else - I mean, I'm going to go hub to hub to hub, and if there's a silence for too long, Paul will step in here. But if you study - look, I agree. And in my judgment, Romney made a terrible mistake, mistake on policy, but also a political mistake by trying to position himself to the right of Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, who actually deals with immigration day in and day out, and understands that you have to welcome folks into society. You have to give them educational opportunities to - Romney got himself to the right of that.

Nevertheless, if you read through his proposals, there has always been an openness toward some kind of path to citizenship, a greater welcomeness, than his position is being mischaracterized as being. Still, I grant, it's hard. It's hard.

GLASTRIS: It's worth remembering that he won the primary by going to Rick. He kind of eliminated Rick Perry as a foe, and then...

ROBINSON: Well...

CONAN: Rick Perry eliminated Rick Perry.

ROBINSON: And - exactly. Rick Perry helped a lot.

GLASTRIS: He sure did, but he also did that to Newt Gingrich, and it's not clear he would have been the nominee had he not gone to the right. That was the dilemma that he found himself in through the entire primary.

RUDIN: Yeah. There were three reasons why Rick Perry failed. I'm sorry. I could only think of two.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Here's an email from Nurie(ph) in...

ROBINSON: Ken, stop being wicked.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...Nurie(ph) in Houston: In a very down-to-earth tone, speak about his promises he made last time, which ones he fulfilled and which ones he did not and why.

Might that not be a useful rhetorical approach, Paul Glastris?

GLASTRIS: You know, I think it might - a nod in that direction. I think probably in the limited period of time you have talking about what you tried to do and didn't succeed at, I'm not sure there's a lot of upside to that because he got so much done. I mean, there's just an endless numbers of things to talk about, that gain, as I said, they laid a predicate for the future on education, on energy, on controlling health care cost, which is at the heart of controlling our fiscal problem. So I think there's plenty there to build on.

CONAN: Peter, go ahead.

ROBINSON: Can I briefly - I just like to ask Paul a question, which has the benefit of being a genuine question. This isn't tendentious at all. I just can't figure it out. We know there's a limited number of states that are in play. And we know that within those states is a very small number, as a percentage, of undecided voters. In this nation of more than 300 million, it may be something under a million voters who decide the outcome of the election. They're undecided because they've watched four years of Barack - they're undecided in part because they can't warm to Mitt Romney. But the other half is they're undecided because after four years of Barack Obama watching this cascade of legislation, they still just don't buy it. Paul, does the president say to that 900 or so - 900,000 voters who will decide the election, to them who don't buy it?

CONAN: And what does he say in 12 seconds?

(LAUGHTER)

GLASTRIS: I think they know a lot has been done, and I think it doesn't behoove him to not talk about it. But I think they understand he inherited a mess, and I don't think they're necessarily believing the whole thing was a failure. They'd like to see more though.

CONAN: Paul Glastris of The Washington Monthly with us here in Studio 3A. Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution, with us from Stanford University. Thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it. We'll have you back.

ROBINSON: Great.

GLASTRIS: A pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: And Ken Rudin, our Political Junkie. You'll be back anyway, Wednesday.

RUDIN: Yeah, I'm so sorry.

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