What Clinton did
It looks like the giant bounce Bill Clinton enjoyed after the 1998 State of the Union address had more to do with Monica Lewinsky than with any set of policy proposals. Nevertheless, according to Gallup, three of the four SOTU addresses that actually appeared to lift a president's numbers belonged to Clinton. So I called Paul Begala, who served as an adviser and strategist in the Clinton White House, to ask what it was that made his boss's speeches so special.
"I can't speak to what other presidents did or didn't do," Begala says. "But Clinton took it very seriously. We'd prepare for six months. He got a thick binder in June that was full of policy ideas. This was our governing agenda."
Begala's recollection makes me wonder if it's the process behind the State of the Union, rather than the State of the Union itself, that's really valuable. Life in the White House is a procession of urgent issues and unexpected crises. Some are small and some are large, but all seem to require your full attention, right this second. A common complaint of people who serve is that there's too much firefighting and not enough long-range thinking and planning. The State of the Union speech, in the Clinton White House, seems to have been the vehicle for that sort of planning: The preparations began early enough, and were sufficiently ambitious and comprehensive, that by the end of the process, the administration pretty much knew what it wanted to do over the next year, and possibly even over the years beyond that. That may have come through in the speech and helped with the polls, but it also may have helped in the governing, which is what really matters.
Photo credit: By J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press
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