By Wyeth Ruthven
The State of the Union is the speech with the highest profile and the shortest shelf-life in American politics. It is the most-watched and least-remembered speech most presidents give. Millions of Americans tune in to watch the President address a joint session of Congress. All three branches of government are represented, along with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Washington diplomatic corps. The State of the Union is a grand pageant of American democracy.
And then the entire speech is forgotten. A laundry list of proposals is presented that never come to pass. With a few exceptions – such as Bill Clinton’s “era of big government is over” or George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” – the rhetoric is usually forgettable. And the political gains are short-lived. Regardless of party, presidents usually gain a “sugar rush” increase in their job approval ratings, but it quickly subsides.
So President Obama seized the moment with a short-lived speech. While plenty of long-term initiatives were proposed on energy, education and infrastructure, Obama lead off his speech with the hot-button issue that are expected to dominate the next two months – the budget. President Obama opened his speech with the budget, and the looming fights over sequestration, the continuing resolution and the debt ceiling. The president made his case clearly. A sequester is bad, but a one-sided sequester that only cuts social programs is even worse. And he drew red lines on the possibility of a government shutdown or a default on the nation’s debt.
In the best of political times, the State of the Union promises too much and delivers too little. That goes double in these days of partisan gridlock. But the speech never fails to boost presidential popularity. With that in mind, President Obama positioned his political and rhetorical capital on the biggest issue looming in the short-term – the budget and the debt ceiling.
Wyeth Ruthven is a managing director at Qorvis Communications. Prior to joining Qorvis, Ruthven spent more than a decade in politics as a speechwriter, communications director and campaign strategist. He also served as press secretary to Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas. Ruthven is a veteran of more than two dozen campaigns in a variety of roles, including communications director and deputy legal counsel for the South Carolina Democratic Party during the 2004 election cycle. Ruthven’s experience also includes work as chief speechwriter to South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges and staff assistant for Senator Ernest F. Hollings.