George W. Bush is not the first president to deliver a State of the Union Address having just lost Congress and with approval ratings in the dumps. But, says former Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldman, in other ways Bush’s speech was unprecedented.
MIKE PESCA: This State of the Union Address was President Bush's sixth, officially, but it was the first before a Congress where his party wasn't in control. This calls for a different type of leadership, a mode where if you rush into the breach you can't be assured that a screaming horde is right on your tail.
To diagnose some of the subtleties of this speech is former presidential speechwriter Michael Waldman. Thanks for joining us, Michael.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: My pleasure.
MIKE PESCA: And you were the former chief speechwriter for Bill Clinton, right?
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Yes, I was. And I worked on four of these State of the Union speeches, and I still get night sweats thinking about them.
MIKE PESCA: As a member, one-time member of a presidential team, how does the White House know what the reaction is? Do they wait for the talking heads on TV to give it a little spin? How do you know?
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Well, it's a big media moment, and there are many audiences. The first audience is, in fact, the members of Congress, the politicians in the room, and you really do care how they react. The second audience is the wider circle of, say, the political class, the pundits who help determine whether people think a president is politically dead or alive, politically relevant or irrelevant. And so that's the group of people who were watching and getting ready to chatter on Tuesday night.
And then the final audience is the public. With Clinton, it was really interesting. There were very different reactions from each of these audiences. Clinton would give these very long State of the Union speeches, as you know. They would go on and on. And as soon as he was done, all the TV talking heads would go on the air and say that was a disaster. He was terrible. He went on and on. He's irrelevant. He's finished.
And then the polls would come in, and it turned out the voters loved them. Approval ratings would always go up, his popularity would go up, the longer the speech was.
MIKE PESCA: This was where the idea of Clinton talking over the media came into play.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: That's exactly right. And part of it, I do think, is that even now, the State of the Union is one of the only times where the television networks will show public affairs programming. Ask yourself the rest of the year how much prime-time real estate is given over to discussion of public issues, and it's hard to imagine that it would match the two hours on State of the Union night. The public really likes hearing directly from its leaders.
MIKE PESCA: And the other thing is the political reporters have heard speeches, if not this speech, speeches hundreds of times, and members of the public hear maybe one speech a year.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: That's right. But what's interesting, of course, is, as I said in Clinton's case, the pundits would sneer and the public would cheer. Here, the public has rejected and reacted viscerally against President Bush's policy on Iraq. His speech a few weeks ago, which was supposed to set out the policy and rally the public, drove people away. So that when the speech came around, I don't think there was a whole heck of a lot he was going to be able to do to change that dynamic, and he didn't really try to.
I was watching at home, and I was most interested, to be perfectly honest, in the reaction shots of the senators, all the people who think they're running for president, and then in hearing the response afterwards and the interviews with the presidential candidates.
Bush, in some respects, seemed like a distant echo, except for the fact that he's still President and he's still commander of the troops, and he's escalating the war.
MIKE PESCA: Let me ask you one question about the reaction of the senators and the congressman, everyone in the room. It seems to me to be an element of kabuki, or actually it's a lot like the Roman Catholic mass – a lot of up-down, up-down. I think that if there were no cameras there, you know, barely a buttock would leave the leather.
But then, you know, you do have this spectacle of people standing up. And I was kind of surprised that a guy named Paul Glastris, who's a respected editor of The Washington Monthly, he said that if you timed the duration of the standing ovations, he bets that it was a shorter length of time for standing ovations than any State of the Union he ever saw. I don't know if he's right or not, but does that matter?
MICHAEL WALDMAN: When Lyndon Johnson gave his speeches before Congress, he used to hop into his presidential limo and ask Jack Valente how many times the audience applauded and how long the applause was.
Now it is quite ritualized, as you say, and everything gets applauded some. There is an element of, as you said, kabuki. It is the case that the response from the Congress, including the Republicans in Congress, for this speech was as tepid as I have ever seen. You have had other presidents lose control of Congress in recent history.
MIKE PESCA: Your president did.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Bill Clinton did in 1994. Ronald Reagan did in 1986. Dwight Eisenhower did in 1958. And Lyndon Johnson lost a lot of seats in 1966 in the middle of the Vietnam War. Usually – not always – but usually, presidents respond to that rebuke from the voters by tacking toward the center, by tacking toward the Congress.
And on domestic issues, I think Bush did that. But on the issue that was, in effect, the subject of the most significant politics and the most significant public interest in this election, Iraq, the President did not tack toward the Congress or toward the public. He turned away. And that's quite unusual. It's not what Ronald Reagan did. It's not what Bill Clinton did.
And it's a lot more like what Lyndon Johnson did when he said, well, we're going to continue to pursue the Vietnam War and the Great Society at the same time. The outcome on the ground in Iraq will determine the political outcome.
MIKE PESCA: Michael Waldman, former chief speechwriter for Bill Clinton. He's the director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU Law School. Thanks very much, Michael.