It is rare for a President to address a joint session of Congress - save for the annual State of the Union address, and that one is mandated under Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution. In fact, the early Presidents often did not address Congress in person even for that occasion.
Thomas Jefferson, a great writer and terrible public speaker, merely sent his annual message up Jenkins Hill - now slightly better known as Capitol Hill, for the leaders of Congress to act on.
As he mounts his Bully Pulpit once again tonight, the President really needs to convince only one audience - the one in the room. This is, after all, a legislative battle at heart. It’s an arena a former Senator should be comfortable in.
Were Lyndon Johnson quarterbacking this effort, he would be working it personally, on a vote by vote basis. He would know which members were on the fence over which issue in the bill. He would know how many members were in the yes column, how many more were needed, and how to get there with a comfortable ten to fifteen vote margin - there is no way he would have moved forward having to depend on one decisive vote who could hold him up at the last minute for more earmarks, or even embarrass him by sending the whole thing down to defeat. He would know what federal facilities were in each member’s district, what was in danger of closing, or could be. And, he would know how to offer each one political cover, should they need it.
Lyndon Johnson would not be out flying around the country giving speeches. His speeches would be short five minute diatribes from the Oval Office to an audience of one Senator or Member of Congress at a time, usually beginning with the phrase - “Come, let us reason together.”
Each president must use his strengths as he sees them, however. In President Obama’s case, he and his advisors see his greatest strength as speech-making. They may be right.
So, what audience will the President address tonight? There are many constituencies who need to hear his message.
Liberal Democrats - It appears that the liberal faction of the President’s own party is seeking to control the final form of the legislation according to their own terms. Can the President convince them that if you demand all or nothing, the most likely result is the latter?
Blue Dog Democrats - Will they listen to angry constituents who have turned out in force at Town Hall meetings, or will they listen to the President’s claim that the opponents are wrong about the facts?
Moderate Republicans - Can he appeal to a few of these, not only to make the health care legislation an easier lift, but to make it appear bi-partisan?
House and Senate Leadership - He needs to not only signal the “bottom line” of what he will settle for, but what he will help them move through Congress.
Large Interest Groups - He needs to let them know details of what he is looking for, and who can expect to enjoy his favor or disfavor. They then, will have to calculate whether what the President wants, as compared to what will happen to them, is worth it.
The Public - It wouldn’t hurt for the President to convince a few undecided voters over to his position, and stop the slide in his public approval rating. That will be watched by members of the first four groups as an indicator of how they should go.
In the end, a good speech is like a good piece of legislation - it should be crafted to reach the right audience.
It seems so simple. A speech needs structure to hold it together, in the same way a railroad track needs ties and rails and spikes to hold it together.
There are three basic elements to the structure of any speech: an Introduction, the main Body, and the Conclusion. To those, might be legitimately added another, preliminary element - the Preamble.
That fourth element is optional, however. It can be useful for establishing audience identification with the speaker, and for acknowledging other participants at an event. But it might not always be appropriate, and is certainly not essential.
Let’s consider the three essential elements that make up the framework of our speech:
Introduction - This sets up the premise or the theme that will be examined in the body of the speech. It’s also the part where, if you haven’t employed a preamble, you seek to establish that essential ingredient - shared identity with the audience.
Body - This is the main part of the speech. It’s where the arguments, or the justifications for the main premise of the speech are developed. This is where the factual bases for the premise are provided. Any statistics - and they should be used sparingly, to avoid confusing the audience - are provided here. The arguments in support of the premise are made here.
Conclusion - It’s where the whole thing is summed up. If there is a call to action - here is where it is issued. If a stirring tribute, it is this point where the emotions of the audience should be most affected.
The first paragraph, with its rather oblique reference to “the mother ship in New York,” is certainly a preamble. It is a beginning and certainly seeks to share some “inside humor.” Unfortunately, no one laughed.
As for the Introduction, it is less than a clear statement of principles, premise, or even promise:
“And with more states facing common challenges, we have the chance, and a profound responsibility, to exercise American leadership to solve problems in concert with others. That is the heart of America’s mission in the world today.”
That’s hardly a statement like Winston Churchill’s famous speech at Westminster college:
“The United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power. It is a solemn moment for the American democracy. For with this primacy in power is also joined an awe-inspiring accountability to the future.”
His “Iron Curtain” speech is an appropriate contrast here, because it also has foreign relations as its topic.
The Body of Secretary Clinton's speech suffers from this initial lack of a clear introductory statement. It continues with an equal lack of clarity. While much is said, it is difficult to follow any clear, logical, path of reasoning.
It is a series of successive paragraphs, each offering something, but they don’t go anywhere. They don’t tie things together into a complete, comprehensible whole. These paragraphs use none of the classic rhetorical devices, such as repetition, to help the audience follow what is being said. Nothing stands out.
Again the contrast is with Churchill:
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”
With that one line, he coined a phrase that still resonates today.
Finally, her Conclusion. The final line is:
“Now all we have to do is deliver. Thank you all very much.”
It does nothing to inspire others on to action, to sum up the information in the speech, or to lay out a course of action the speaker intends to pursue.
In the end, a speech without a clear structure is like riding in a train that’s come off the track. You’ve still got an engine - but you won’t be going anywhere.
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.