State of the Union speeches rarely contain surprises. They are well-vetted, previewed, and tested ahead of time. If you like the president, you probably liked the speech, and if you don't, you probably didn't. There were no “Eureka!” moments last night, but that is not the intent of these addresses. What is important is the message the president is attempting to deliver.
As a communications specialist, the first questions I ask are, “Who is the audience? What are the messages for each? And how effectively has he reached each of those audiences?” A State of the Union address is not only aimed at the members of Congress inside the chamber, but more to the outside audience — and it is not monolithic. Yes, the general electorate is a target. But within that is the liberal base, the mainstream party loyalists, moderate Democrats, independents, Wall Street, and to some degree even the Republican opposition.
For the liberal base, the message last night was jobs and healthcare. For party loyalists, it was education, the economy, and jobs. For moderate Democrats, it was, “Don't run for the hills.” For Wall Street, it was the economy and free trade as well as the populist anger toward the banks. Finally, for Republicans, it was an admonition that they must take responsibility for governing too.
It may take a few days to sort out precisely how well Obama reached each of these segments, but a scan of headlines offers a quick synopsis. For the liberal Daily Kos, “the speech was ‘very, very strong' on specifics, including on clean energy, Don't ask, Don't tell, and expanded assistance for student loan programs.” From Arianna Huffington, “It came across less like an overriding vision for the country, and more like an attempt to deliver at least one applause line for every constituency in the country.” At the center-left Washington Post, “President Obama didn't back down from his key initiatives, but it's not clear how much he helped their cause.” On the center-right, George Will said, “He's just not crediting the fact that people have SUBSTANTIVE differences, rather than differences with his presentation.” For the conservative Weekly Standard, it was “a disappointing presidential address” and a “bad omen” for the Democrats. From Wall Street, the response will be in how the markets react.
Whether the State of the Union Address was effective for the president won't be found in the instant analysis from the networks and political reporters. Instead, it will play out over the next several days and be shaped by how each audience responds.
Don Goldberg is a partner with Washington-based Qorvis Communications