The barrage of lobbying and jockeying has become a Washington ritual that is often reviled by those on both sides of the process.
“The State of the Union is the most hated speech by many speechwriters,” said William McGurn, former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush. “No matter how many times you vow it won’t become a laundry list, it becomes a laundry list, if only because it is where the president lays out his legislative priorities.”
In some cases, the most vocal lobbyists can be those from the various departments inside the federal government.
“For someone toiling away on some policy, the State of the Union may be the only chance to elevate that work by getting a presidential mention,” McGurn said. “These are the people who want things mentioned, and getting departments to boil down their priorities was always a challenge.”
While any one line in a State of the Union speech may not seem to be a matter of critical importance, Bush’s 2003 speech — and the brouhaha that resulted from the inclusion of the now-infamous “16 words” alleging that Saddam Hussein had sought to purchase uranium from Niger — is a reminder of the consequences that even a single sentence can have.
Interest groups say they pursue a scattershot strategy as they lobby to get their issues in the speech.
“What we try to do is get our priorities in front of as many people as possible so that you start creating some kind of echo effect,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).
Depending on the focus of the organization, the typical channels might include the Office of Public Engagement, the Domestic Policy Council or the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, as well as Cabinet secretaries and departments dedicated to specific issues, such as the Council on Environmental Quality and the Council of Economic Advisers.
This year, while the process is much the same as it has been in the past, some of those involved in lobbying the White House say their bar for success is higher than it has been for previous speeches.
Whereas in recent years a vague mention of a policy goal might have been viewed as a win, this time, as President Obama embarks on a second term and as Congress remains gridlocked, some interest groups are hoping that the White House will bypass Capitol Hill and take executive action.
“In the past you might be hoping for him to say the word ‘climate’ — that’s such a big accomplishment,” said Melinda Pierce, legislative director of the Sierra Club. “We have much bigger hopes this year. . . . I think the question coming out of [the inauguration] was, what can the president do given that Congress isn’t delivering at all?”