On speech-giving and speech-receiving

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The New York Times ran an article by Michael D. Shears on Monday, the day before the President’s State of the Union Address, suggesting that we were in store for a speech that would draw on Obama’s personal skills as an author. Shears reports that advisers described a process for writing the speech that began with Obama discussing out loud and dictating to his top speechwriter, who in turn recorded the content as well as the tone and phrasing that the President had used. Shears continues:

That began a weeks-long back and forth in which Mr. Obama would often take a draft of the speech back to the White House residence and sit with a legal pad, rewriting large sections in longhand….. The pattern is comfortable for Mr. Obama, who is an author of two books and likes putting his thoughts on paper, [his advisers] said. The president has spent time practicing his delivery of the speech as it has gotten closer, but the development process was done largely in writing.

Listeners had abundant opportunities to follow real-time blogging, tweeting, and online chat commentary during the actual speech. The New Yorker published one such live conversation that mentioned any and all aspects of the spectacle as well as the speech itself. At one early point participant Amy Davidson commented, “It is a little generic so far,” but the online chat itself grew more spirited as the speech continued.

Several writers have opined that the speech smacked of corporate lingo. John Dickerson writes in Slate Magazine today:

"Win the future." That was President Obama's slogan for his State of the Union address, in which he used the phrase (or a variant) 11 times. Not only is Obama courting American business, he's using tag lines from corporate marketing. But as the president spoke, the line sounded more like the title of a self-help seminar, with Obama in the role of Tony Robbins.

Agree or disagree, it’s interesting to consider the President’s choices of language. Mark Blumenthal reminds us in Huffpost Pollster that data have shown that public opinion is rarely impacted in a meaningful or enduring way by the State of the Union address. Mixed opinions and criticism of the address are nothing new, but the immediacy of commentary and the informality provided by online platforms adds a new angle to our sense of involvement in the process.