A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
To Whom Will He Speak?
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.
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.