State of the State of the Union

Some random observations on President Obama’s State of the Union speech last night:

Almost Reaganesque: With its visionary theme and optimistic tone, and a few policy proposals that sounded like they were copied from the Republican playbook, the president almost achieved what some pundits said was his goal: to have his own “Reagan moment”. I believe he fell just short; not because of the speech itself, which was excellent, but because of his ethos. Ethos relates to credibility, and Reagan’s optimism had immediate credibility because it was a central part of his character, and the man fit the speech. Obama may yet live up to his words, but only time will tell.

Carter he ain’t: The worst political speech I ever heard was Carter’s “malaise” speech. This speech was a far cry from that. During tough times, pharm a leader has to project confidence and hope, and Obama rose to that leadership challenge last night.

An artful blend of inspiration and fear: Although mostly positive, the speech included just enough references to China, South Korea, and our educational rankings to subtly remind us of the consequences of not succeeding. Martin Luther King did the same at the start of his Dream speech, and it helped make the visionary ending much more memorable.

Storytelling: Reagan made an art form of weaving in personal stories to make his themes more concrete, and including the heroes in the audience for all to see. Obama made good use of this technique last night. It’s the Mother Teresa principle: “If I see one, I will act.”

We Do Big Things: This was the line that most resonated with me. He set it up with the story of the small company that built the equipment to help save the Chilean miners, and said it twice at the end of his speech. I think he could have repeated it two or three more times for even greater effect. From a technical point of view, it was a good demonstration of the identity appeal.

Changing tenses: We saw a classic demonstration of the changing tenses technique, which is useful when trying to defuse argument and rancor. The President urged us to leave behind the battles of the past and focus on the future—several times. Some cynics might say that’s just a way of sweeping important differences under the rug, but it can be very effective.

If you want to move to the center, at least look at them: If you pay close attention to Obama’s eyes, he never looks at the center of the room. I suspect this is because of the placing of the teleprompters, but it must be disconcerting to those actually present. This video of Reagan’s 1982 SOTU speech shows how it’s done.

Timing and pacing were excellent.

Reframing incivility: With all the recent outcry about our nasty political culture, the President reminded us that it could be worse. At least our system lets us talk about our differences.

My own uncivil moment: When the President talked about freezing pay raises and the hardship it would impose on “hardworking Federal employees”, I couldn’t help but thinking: “Yeah, all three of them!”

Investment not spending: Words matter. Salespeople have long known that the use of the word investment shifts the focus from the expense to the return. That effect may be diminished or even backfire, though, if the listener is on the lookout for this tactic, as the Republican Congressional delegation surely was.

Are we really at war?: The President was already 45 minutes into his speech before he mentioned foreign policy at all, and I’m not even sure whether he mentioned Afghanistan at all. Either that means that we’re doing really well over there, or really, really badly.

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  • More interesting thoughts, Jack!

    Whenever I hear leaders talk, I watch for how often they seem to express regard for others in the form of what I sometimes call “expectations of maturity.” I am always interested in how certain paradigms of leadership can seem to help move people toward dealing with the existential realities of life (which is part of my current definition of adulthood) or away from doing so (which I sometimes think about at infantalizing one’s “followers”).

    As I write this, I’m reminded of Collins’ focus on leaders being able to communicate the so-called “brutal facts” to others, which, when done with expectations for maturity, I’ve found can help people mature and think more clearly. I often wonder what sort of leadership is truly in the best interest of the so-called followers: a leadership style that often leaves others dependent on the leader for experiences like “inspiration” or “vision” (as a child is to a parent quite often) or a leadership style that affirms that everyone has the cabability to motivate and inspire themselves (as mature, clear-thinking adults)? Interesting stuff to consider, I think!

  • Terie,

    Thanks for the rebuttal. you sister was one of the 3 i had in mind 🙂 Seriously, I know that a lot of civil servants work really hard, but The Economist ran a special report on federal, state and municipal workers last month. One thing that struck me was that, traditionally, people in government jobs accepted lower average pay than comparable jobs in the private sector, in return for employment security and excellent pensions. In recent years, however, they have surpassed the private sector in pay and still retain their benefit advantage. If you could make a case that government service is improving, that might be OK.

  • Terie Scerbo

    I watched the State of the Union last week, and thought it was pretty good. Your analysis helped with that.

    I have to provide a rebuttal to your “uncivil moment.” 😉

    I happen to know at least 1 civil servant — my own sister. She works as a civilian in the Coast Guard’s budget operations. And, she has to work very long hours, weekends, etc., and had to cancel her holiday vacation plans at the last minute, thanks to the Congressional to-do at the end of the year. I could go on — but, I think the point is made. Federal workers are people, too, and we ask a lot of them. And, some of them are not good while the balance are doing their work on our behalf.

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