Writing State Of The Union Speech: A Juggling Act

January 23, 2011

Ari Shapiro

For a White House speechwriter, there is a conflict in the State of the Union address. It's the speech that gets all the attention, where the president lays out his legislative agenda for the year ahead. But as far as poetry, arc and theme, it can also be the clunkiest.

"They can be an absolute legislative laundry list," says Mary Kate Cary, a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. "And that doesn't make it very fun to write.

"On one hand, it's nice to have the glory of saying, 'Well, I wrote the State of the Union address,' " she says. "But really, you'd rather want to be known for writing the inaugural address. That's where the poetry is, and the State of the Union is a bit of a slog, I think."

A Management Challenge

Most presidential speeches take shape vertically — that is, one speechwriter is in charge. He or she sends it up the White House ladder until it reaches the president.

But the State of the Union takes shape horizontally. Every department and agency submits its plans for the coming year. And everyone has an opinion about what the speech should say, which can be a management challenge, says former George W. Bush speechwriter John McConnell.

"You get a lot of suggestions from throughout the administration of things that need to go in the speech," McConnell says. "You get suggested language at times from people, and you have to give everything fair consideration."

The planning takes months and starts before Christmas.

This year, people familiar with the process say White House speechwriters were working on a draft on Saturday, Jan. 8. That day, a gunman opened fire in Arizona, shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords through the head and killing several others.

For the team writing the State of the Union, the attack meant the mood of the speech had to change. During marathon revision sessions, they struggled over how to appropriately reflect the moment that the country is in, both after Tucson and after two years of economic struggles.

'A Leader For The Whole Country'

Former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol says Tuesday's address can't just be a sequel to the eulogy that Obama delivered in Arizona.

"An event like Tucson will certainly have an effect," Shesol says. "That said, it's been clear already that he's going to talk about the deficit, he's going to talk about spending cuts, he's very likely going to talk about tax reform. Those things were already going to be in the speech, and they will still be in the speech irrespective of what happened in Tucson."

Still, the attacks will be a big part of this speech. People from Tucson will almost certainly sit with the first lady in the House Gallery.

And former Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldman says the president would be foolish not to use this moment to build on the political gains from the Tucson speech.

"President Obama will want to use a speech like this to reassert his standing, not as a divisive partisan figure but as a leader for the whole country," Waldman says. "He really began to do that with the success in the lame-duck session of Congress and with the powerful and very widely praised eulogy in Tucson, but this speech is the next chance to do that."

Working With Both Parties

And the need for someone who can work with both parties is stronger now than ever.

Behind Obama, Republican House Speaker John Boehner will be sitting in the chair that Democrat Nancy Pelosi occupied last year.

So one option is for Obama to strike a conciliatory tone with Republicans. But McConnell says there's another option.

"I think back to President Bush in 2007, when he was facing a new majority and his back was against the wall, in a sense, because he was trying to push the troop surge in Iraq, and the support for that was very thin in the Congress," he says. "And he went in there in the State of the Union, and he gave a very powerful message and had them on their feet."

And that year, even though Democrats controlled Congress, the troop surge happened. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.