The President's Speech

Question: How much clout does a speech carry?

Michael Waldman:  The words that a president says are very powerful, so the people who help the president with those words, who persuade him, who argue for one thing or another have to take responsibility for what it is they’re arguing for.  The “axis of evil” had a huge impact on foreign policy, on the United States’ reputation all over the world.  As much as I like the speech writers who worked for President Bush, if I’d written that, I wouldn’t want to take credit for it either.  But it’s up to the president, ultimately, what he says, but absolutely, how a president talks, what he chooses to say.  When a president in a speech, any president refers to something as a priority, rather than the priority, that’s a billion dollars difference right there in the budget.  And when a president’s talking to the whole world in inflammatory terms, it can really set the country forward or back. There are times when you’re surprised, but if you’re doing your job well, you’re not going to be too surprised.  The purpose of a presidential speech, almost overwhelmingly, is to move public opinion or move the policy makers who are worried that maybe the public is going to have an opinion.  You’re not writing.  I always used to tell the speech writers who worked with me, “We’re not writing to put words chiseled on the wall of the Clinton Library.  We’re trying to move the ball a few yards.”  And so any president knows when they’re talking if what they say is going to appeal to liberals or conservatives, if there’s religious language, if there’s politically inflammatory language or if there’s language that’s supposed to calm things down.  In our case, Bill Clinton knew that the media had a very specific idea of what a democrat was supposed to say about the budget, so he knew that if he said in 1995, when Clinton was fighting with the republicans in congress over the government shutdown of the budget, he said, “I want to balanced budget that honors our values by protecting Medicare and Medicaid, education and the environment.”  In other words, fiscally responsible, but using government for activist means, in other words, also a conservative argument for a balanced budget and a liberal argument for these government programs.  And he knew that if he split those into two sentences, the media, just because of being clichéd, would only say today President Clinton opposed cuts in Medicare, so he had to make sure that there was no period, that there was only a comma.  He couldn’t say, “I’m for a balanced budget, but you should know another thing.  I’m for saving Medicare.”  It had to be in the same sentence.  So when the President speaks, you know who your audience is in front of you.  You know who might be watching at home on TV.  If it’s in front of congress, you know what each caucus is waiting to hear.  And most of all, you know what the media is going to do to slice and dice and chop it into little bits.  In the era of the Internet, people were willing to listen to a full speech.  The number of people who downloaded Barack Obama’s speech on race at the Constitution Center is just breathtaking.  That was not available to Bill Clinton in the ‘90s or anyone before that.

Fresh off a well-received speech in Tuscon, President Obama's next oratorical opportunity will be the State of the Union Address on January 25. Michael Waldman explains the art of presidential speechmaking.

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