Obama takes cautious approach to State of the Union

PR executives gave President Barack Obama mostly positive reviews for the constructive nature of the State of the Union Address, but panned the stale format of the speech.

PR executives gave President Barack Obama mostly positive reviews for the constructive nature of the State of the Union Address, but panned the stale format of the speech.  

Hours before President Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union address on Tuesday night, which he crowned with the slogan “year of action,” it had already been widely reported on and critically analyzed by experts due to released excerpts.

So when the president took to the podium in the chamber of the House of Representatives, the only thing left for him to do was perform.

“As details started to leak out, virtually anybody could have seen dozens of pre-reports online or offline about the content of the speech,” says Howard Opinsky, Hill+Knowlton Strategies EVP and GM of the firm's Washington, DC, office.

Most agree that the president is a gifted orator. So although many people were already familiar with the speech's material – and even though Obama's approval rating was in the mid-40s according to most polls – he delivered it in a way that could connect with the nation. He kept policy proposals to a minimum, added a human touch by praising wounded veteran Cory Remsburg, and even referenced the TV show Mad Men when discussing equal pay for women.

Due to these points, Obama's emotional speech likely resonated with more people than just his supporters, Opinsky adds.

The president's tone was conciliatory, and he avoided controversy, outlined problems, and proposed solutions that would appeal to Republicans. Because of this, the address called to mind President Theodore Roosevelt's famous phrase, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” for Scott Widmeyer, managing partner of Widmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners company.

“The State of the Union is not a place where you are trying to be confrontational to begin with, because you are speaking to a bipartisan audience of elected officials,” he explains.

Obama attempted to rise above Washington's stagnation – shifting the conversation away from his administration being part of the problem – and share the American public's frustration at the lack of action. Yet that wasn't enough to hide the fact that the president spoke broadly, offering few concrete solutions.

“The problem is, there is an overall climate that needs to be improved in this country,” says Opinsky. “While Obama rhetorically aligned himself with that need, his actions didn't align with that need, because he didn't offer any policies to do that.”

How Obama made his point

The 2014 State of the Union was rich with personal examples of ordinary Americans rising up the ladder and facing adversity.

Sons and daughters
One hallmark message of the Obama presidency has been that all Americans – regardless of financial status – deserve a chance to improve their lives. To illustrate this during Tuesday's speech, he called out special guest Mary Barra, the newly minted CEO of General Motors, as a “daughter of a factory worker.” The House chamber hooted after the president referred to Speaker John Boehner as the “son of a barkeep.”

But what really brought the House down was Obama's praise for 30-year-old Army Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, who was grievously injured in Afghanistan in 2009. Presidents want State of the Union Addresses to present a picture of government, unified across parties, and this example drew applause from both sides of the aisle.

Saving hot topics for last
Proposals to curb climate change – tagged as a possible second-term priority for the president by politicos – were mentioned early in the speech. His defense of the Affordable Care Act and a promise to again take on gun control came much later.

Fifth or sixth?
Media reports have varyingly referred to Tuesday's speech as either Obama's fifth or sixth State of the Union Address. Technically, the former is correct because incoming presidents don't refer to their first speech to a joint session of Congress as a “State of the Union,” rather an “annual message,” according to CNN. It was Obama's eighth speech before a gathering of both houses of Congress.
-Frank Washkuch

Predictability eliminates authenticity
Since President Woodrow Wilson re-introduced the practice of the in-person presidential addresses in 1913, Americans have come to expect highly staged and tested speeches, says Doug O'Reilly, SVP of research and insights at MWW.

However, it was the address' sameness of substance and style – mirroring speeches from years past – that left Lisa Ross, EVP and group head of corporate and public affairs at Ogilvy Washington, with a sense of déjà vu.

“Not only have I heard the bootstrap ‘only in America' themes, but I've also heard the cadence in the president's voice; seen overly negative facial expressions from Republicans, and overly positive Democrats,” she adds. “There is always a ‘hero' seated with the first family; someone who exemplifies everything that we strive to be. It's no wonder we as a nation are jaded and uninspired.”  

There needs to be a rethinking of the State of the Union, as well as how it can better appeal to the public, Widmeyer says. He adds that a 65-minute speech with a laundry list of accomplishments is overkill.

“There is nothing that says it has to be done the way it has always been done,” he adds. “A lot more can be accomplished with a 25- to 40-minute address with some graphics and visuals. The way we react to things these days comes from that visual, slogan, or quick blurb we heard on the radio or saw on TV or online.”

Yet the evening wasn't without its curveballs. Willie and Korie Robertson from reality show Duck Dynasty were guests at the event invited by Rep. Vance McAllister (R-LA). Although Willie's father, Phil Robertson, said “homosexual behavior” leads to bestiality, McAllister said he invited the Robertsons to bring “diversity” to the event.

Another unscripted incident occurred post-speech when Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) threatened to throw a NY1 reporter from the Capitol's balcony. In 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) yelled, “You lie,” during Obama's healthcare speech on the floor of the House. However, this year's address concluded without inappropriate outbursts.

“The opposition voices were more subdued than we anticipated,” says MWW's O'Reilly. “Only the Affordable Care Act portion of the speech generated any real discord [on Twitter].”

The after-effect
Looking at Obama's address and the commentary that followed it, he did an effective job putting forward an optimistic vision that was constructive in tone and communicated the core threads of what he wants to accomplish, says Jim Papa, SVP and MD at Global Strategy Group.

But only 44% of respondents had a “very positive” response to Obama's speech, in comparison to 53% last year, according to a CNN/ORC International poll.

Judging solely by Twitter commentary, the president's address was moderately above average, but likely more of an incremental step forward rather than a conversation changer, according to an analysis of the social media conversation on the speech, conducted by MWW.

“Historically, fifth years are tough on presidents, just as midterm elections have historically posed challenges for the incumbent president's party,” adds O'Reilly. “Remember that the story of more than one-third of the Obama presidency has yet to be written.”

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