The State of the Union game: Hopefuls jockey to get their causes into speech

February 9, 2013

Call it rhetorical earmarking.

Every year, interest groups and individuals lobby the White House to get their pet policy issues or coveted causes mentioned in the State of the Union address. And every year, the president, his speechwriters and policy advisers have to decide which agenda items merit a paragraph or sentence, a shout-out or some extra-special form of recognition. This year, gun-control advocates are likely to have the spotlight.

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.

After the president delivers the State of the Union address, there are rebuttals from either Democrats or Republicans, and sometimes other parties. Take a look back at some of the most memorable State of the Union responses of the last 10 years. (Nicki Demarco/Sandi Moynihan /The Washington Post)

“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?”

“Obviously, we have answers to that,” she added.

When it comes to the potential courses of action for the White House, many advocacy organizations have made clear that they have specific moves in mind.

Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay rights group, is pressing for an executive order granting nondiscrimination protections to employees of federal contractors.

Among the items on an eight-page policy wish list sent by NALEO to the White House last month are legislative progress on immigration and the creation of a White House Office of New Americans.

The AFL-CIO would like to see the White House and Congress take a number of big steps on immigration and fiscal policy, but it is also pressing Obama for unilateral action that the labor group says would help protect workers and lead to more jobs and higher wages.

And the Sierra Club is hoping for an announcement by Obama that the Environmental Protection Agency will move forward on regulating emissions for new coal-fired power plants.

“How specific Obama is in terms of moving us from dirty power to clean energy, or is it talking about a specific rule on carbon emissions from power plants, we don’t know,” Pierce said.

Outside advocates can present a challenge to speechwriters — but so can the demands of individuals within the White House.

Former George H.W. Bush chief speechwriter Chriss Winston recalled that the president’s chief of staff, John H. Sununu, had a habit of telling the White House wordsmiths to “leave a hole” in the speech for a piece of news that he would insert at the last moment.

“We always nicknamed it ‘the Rabbit,’ because whatever that nugget was going to be that he was going to give us later . . . he was going to pull a rabbit out of the hat,” said Winston, who was the first woman to serve as head of the White House Office of Speechwriting.

By the time the date of the speech nears, meetings inside the White House have ramped up from once or twice a week to twice a day, and the focus has turned away from including more agenda items and toward trimming the speech down — even as the president practices his delivery in the White House movie theater or in the motorcade on the way to the Capitol.

“In the Clinton White House, when you’re about a few days out from the speech, we always had remarks that were probably 40 minutes too long,” said Joel Johnson, a former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton who is now a managing director of the Glover Park Group. “So, it wasn’t about what goes in the speech — it was about what comes out of the speech. . . . And sometimes, those decisions are fairly arbitrary, and something that had been in the speech for weeks comes out in the final hours.”

Those lobbying for a line in the speech may not know until the final hours, if not during the speech itself, whether they have been successful.

And even then, Johnson said, success is in the eye of the beholder.

“Certainly, more energy goes into advocacy around the State of the Union than almost any other governmental action — and for rather questionable long-term results,” he said. . . . “There’s nothing in that speech that would not have occurred to the president or his speechwriters without the help of some outside advocate.”

“But nevertheless,” he added, “the process continues.”

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