Next week Bill Clinton will deliver his eighth annual address before Congress. The State of the Union is his favorite time of year. He loves the policy, the politics, the polling, the showmanship and schmaltz. He loves rewriting and rehearsing for days on end. He loves the chance to give a long speech, though he frets about length. ("I cut 57 words last night," he proudly announces each morning--then adds 100 more.) He knows it is one of the only times a president gets to speak directly to the public, one of the last remaining true civic rituals.
As of about now, the speechwriters and policy advisers are probably on their second or third all-nighter. As Clinton's chief speechwriter for the past four such addresses, I feel their pain. Every interest group, Cabinet secretary, long-lost acquaintance of the president and consultant has helpful and usually contradictory ideas and is happy to share them. Once I asked to have a round keyboard installed in my office, so everyone could type at once.
By their nature, State of the Union addresses are ungainly. A message "from time to time" is actually required in the Constitution. For over a century, presidents didn't deliver them in person, after Thomas Jefferson decided doing so was presumptuous, even kingly. But in the years since Woodrow Wilson shocked Washington by actually showing up on Capitol Hill, the SOTU, to use its White House acronym, has developed into a potent leadership tool for media-age presidents. Here's a viewer's guide:
The Candidates: Clinton always offers an exquisitely nuanced homage to Hillary. This year, excessive praise may seem political. ("I'd like to thank the first lady for her leadership in securing DOT funding for the New York subways.") Al Gore's predicament is more perilous. Just days before the New Hampshire vote, the VP will be seen literally over the president's shoulder, loyally (if clumsily) applauding, slowly standing and sitting as if pulled by strings from the president's TelePrompTer. Like, ahem, a beta male.
Even routine presidential praise will seem to shrink Gore. Perhaps he can tear a page from George W. Bush's playbook and stay away, claiming that Tipper is receiving a "long-planned" honorary degree. More likely, Gore will try to use the speech and its afterglow to rally Democratic voters and remind them why they stuck with Clinton.
The Hero in the Gallery: In 1982, speaking before Congress at a time when he was trying to cut government, Ronald Reagan introduced Lenny Skutnik, who had dived into the Potomac to save a victim of the 14th Street plane crash--on his daily commute to work in a government agency. Reagan's heroes embodied plucky individualism, true grit, the voluntary spirit. Clinton's heroes embody his "third way": They highlight ethnic and racial diversity, show the good that government can do, stress community. And there are lots and lots of them.
Policy Mountains and Molehills: There's always a recognizably big policy proposal--whether it's health care or last year's plan to divvy up the surplus to fix Social Security and Medicare. Next Thursday expect a discussion of the international economy and aid to the working poor. But Clinton also piles up dozens of smaller proposals, announcements and challenges. News flash: Yes, they are poll-tested. (Though not always. The idea for school uniforms in 1996 came from Hillary Clinton's book. In fact, the pollsters weren't wild about its being in the speech.) We used to grumble that these bite-size policy proposals were "Pez Pellets." But they have a serious purpose: They are steps the president can take without waiting for a balky Congress.
Republican Root Canal: For the GOP, these annual addresses can be un-anesthetized agony. Boo and you look churlish. Cheer and you bolster Clinton. Republicans used to watch Speaker Gingrich for cues. When Newt clapped, they clapped; when Newt scowled, they scowled.
But last year's turmoil in Congress posed a problem. Clinton would proclaim his support of some measure, say a GOP-backed tax cut. Democrats, who by then were applauding presidential semicolons, would leap to their feet. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, just two weeks on the job, would squint into the audience for a second or two. Finally, Tom DeLay--the majority whip and the true GOP power--would stand and applaud. A second or two later, Hastert would follow, followed a second or two later by the other Republicans, by which time the Democrats were already sitting down. This year, watch to see if the DeLay Delay has been ironed out.
Even under difficult circumstances, these speeches can matter. In 1998 Clinton made a surprise proposal for using the new, unanticipated budget surplus. At that moment, a massive tax cut seemed to have Mack Truck momentum. "I have a simple four-word answer: Save Social Security first." Democrats roared. Gingrich mulled it for a discernible instant, then leaped to his feet. The Republicans quickly followed. At that moment, on national TV, a trillion dollars silently shifted from the budget column marked "tax cut" to the column marked "reserved for Social Security."
So stay tuned. In 2000, perhaps the biggest question will be whether Clinton can use this showcase once again to provide unexpected momentum to his presidency. In the past, bravura performances have helped propel him to reelection and through scandal. This one can show whether this lame duck can still quack.
Michael Waldman is former assistant to the president and director of speechwriting in the Clinton White House.