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Posted at 4:23 PM ET, 01/25/2011

What Clinton did

By Ezra Klein


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

By Ezra Klein  | January 25, 2011; 4:23 PM ET
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Thanks for following up. Presidents rarely have the attention of most of the American people, some presidents take advantage of the opportunities they get and use those speeches to persuade people. Obama's Tucson speech is a good example. Few modern presidents have the skill to make an effective speech, but that is the fault of the man, not an indication of the irrelevance of speeches.

Posted by: tiburke | January 25, 2011 4:45 PM | Report abuse

It would be interesting to know how open the process was. Who had inputs. Who did analysis. Who computed outcomes?

Posted by: denim39 | January 25, 2011 5:02 PM | Report abuse

What Clinton did.

1. Barred homos from the military.
2. Barred homos from marrying.
3. Limited the growth of Medicaid spending.
4. Refused to pass any type of cap and tax legislation or send the kyoto protocol for ratification in the US Senate.
5. Limited the growth of unemployment spending.
6. Reduced taxes on US capital gains.
7. Did not pass any type of nonsense universal healthcare system.

8. Grew the economy and jobs.

What does Odumba do? The opposite of all 8.

Posted by: krazen1211 | January 25, 2011 5:54 PM | Report abuse

A comforting list of battles the right has lost or is losing.
Except of course, jobs.
The left is creating private sector jobs while Bush, jr. only created government jobs.

Posted by: karenfink | January 25, 2011 6:08 PM | Report abuse


What? When? Last time I checked about 3 million private sector jobs have been lost since Obama's inauguration.

Posted by: krazen1211 | January 25, 2011 6:19 PM | Report abuse


At the time Clinton was forcing socialized Hillary-run medicine on the public, stealing everyone's guns in preparation for a totalitarian new world order, murdering Vince Foster, smuggling drugs into the country, sitting back and watching while Hillary disgraced the White House Christmas tree with crack pipes, "wagging the dog" by bombing African and Middle Eastern countries, conducting crooked real estate deals, and raping his interns. Oh, and he was gay, somehow.

The recent conserva-love for Clinton is honestly something I never expected to see. Though I never understood the conservative hysteria over a moderate Democrat from Arkansas in the first place.

I'm just going to charitably view it as baby steps toward sanity.

Posted by: dstr | January 25, 2011 6:24 PM | Report abuse

Obama's State of the Union speech will be total BS...just like all of the State of the Union addresses. This is just a opportunity to talk to the huddled masses. Nothing good will come!

Posted by: my4653 | January 25, 2011 6:48 PM | Report abuse

Begala's explanation for Clinton's successful SOTU speeches is the biggest fairy tale I have ever heard. Amazed you would fall for it. Clinton's speeches were utterly forgettable grab bags of this and that program, or spending initiative, always called "investments" and they went on at what seemed like Castro like length. BUT -- the thing that made them so successful for him was that he was greeted like a rock star as he swaggered his way to the podium, people just leaning toward him, yearning for a glance, a touch, a word. He loved that, and played it to the hilt. He looked very attractive, very powerful at those moments.

Posted by: truck1 | January 25, 2011 7:13 PM | Report abuse


The difference is Clinton failed at most of those initiatives and thus grew the economy.

Obama was dumb enough to actually implement some moronic antigrowth universal healthcare policy. Clinton just talked a lot about it.

Posted by: krazen1211 | January 25, 2011 7:15 PM | Report abuse

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