For the most part, Biden struck a positive tone delivering the speech on Tuesday night, which drew cheers and applause – and the occasional heckling – during the joint session of Congress. But the president’s upbeat demeanor came at the end of what is usually a tough and sometimes impossible process for the writers who have crafted the speech.
In any administration, writing the annual State of the Union address is a difficult assignment. I should know: I am a former presidential speechwriter for George H.W. Bush, and while I never wrote a State of the Union speech, I’ve seen the process up close and was always relieved to have dodged the bullet.
Sure, the State of the Union speech is one of the great rituals of our American democracy – but it’s also an unusually difficult and thankless job for any speechwriter.
The goal of a State of the Union address is to rally public support for the president’s domestic and foreign policy agenda.
This year’s speechwriters had to balance the president’s desire to point out his administration’s successes with voters’ negative sentiment about the way things are going. Among many others, NBC News polling found that large and persistent majorities of voters – over 70% in eight out of nine recent polls – continue to believe that America is on the wrong track. One NBC affiliate’s website claims the network’s polling has “never before recorded this level of sustained pessimism” among voters.
Similarly, Gallup found that the 22% of Americans who are satisfied with the way things are going in the U.S. represents one of the lowest levels the firm has ever seen. As public policy scholar Elaine Kamark wrote recently, the U.S. population is “wallowing in pessimism.”
Other presidential speechwriters have faced the same challenge. So, how does a speechwriter try to change opinions?
Matching Agenda and Voters’ Concerns
The State of the Union speech is usually assigned to one speechwriter and one researcher, who start working on it weeks to months in advance.
The process typically begins with a call to all the Cabinet agencies asking for a paragraph or so from each on their accomplishments over the previous year and goals for the future. As the submissions come in, the speechwriter somehow has to string them all together in a compelling way.
At the same time, the challenge is to match the administration’s agenda with the voters’ top concerns. The latest Gallup poll shows that those responding to the poll believe government is the top problem facing the country, at 21%, followed by inflation at 15%, immigration at 11%, and the economy in general at 10%.
Yet The New York Times reports that Biden’s top economic aides argued for weeks over “how much to talk about child care, prekindergarten, paid leave, and other new spending proposals that the president failed to secure” in his first two years in office.
Those issues, which are important to the president’s agenda, are not exactly at the top of voters’ minds. How does a speechwriter balance the two?
Add to the assignment: the decision whether to lead with domestic or foreign policy; how to resolve differences on conflicting policies, goals or budget numbers among Cabinet agencies; and whether to craft clever applause lines that produce a standing ovation by the entire House and Senate, to show bipartisan support for the president in, say, targeting Big Tech. Or perhaps create lines aiming to spark roaring approval by one side of the aisle while the other sits on its hands, to make wedge issues clear to voters – such as increased spending proposals in the face of mounting national debt.