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Importance of President Bush’s Fifth State of the Union Address

February 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: When President Bush enters the House Chambers tomorrow night to deliver his fifth state of the union address, he is expected to claim some credit for last weekend’s largely successful elections in Iraq. But White House aides say the president’s address will also lay out a domestic blueprint for his second term.

So how do presidents do this, and how do they get people to listen? For this we turn to three men with some experience in helping to craft presidential agendas: Thomas “Mack” McLarty, who was President Clinton’s chief of staff; Kenneth Duberstein served in the same job for president Reagan; and David Gergen, who advised Presidents Clinton…, Reagan, Ford, and Nixon.

So, Mack McLarty, the White House was saying today, White House officials were briefing on what was expected to be in the speech tomorrow night. They said roughly half domestic, half foreign — the first half domestic, the second half foreign. Obviously the president is coming off of a boost from this weekend. How does he take advantage of that?

THOMAS McLARTY: There is no question, Gwen, that he will have a wind at his back real momentum with the Iraqi elections. It’s really his third speech, if you want to the look at the inaugural– quite an stirring vision for freedom, then the announcement that he had about the Iraqi elections and now the state of the union. I do think he has to concentrate, however, on domestic issues in this speech, which he didn’t talk about too much in his inaugural address. I expect him to do that.

GWEN IFILL: Do you expect that, too, Ken Duberstein?

KEN DUBERSTEIN: Absolutely. The crucial part of the state of the union address is really the first ten or 15 minutes, because that’s when your maximum audience is listening.

GWEN IFILL: You lose people?

KEN DUBERSTEIN: I think you probably do start drifting off. The answer is that that venue of the House chamber and getting bipartisan applause and being greeted as you’re walking down the aisle, and then opening up by talking about your centerpiece, which really is domestic policy, before you get, as Mack said, wind at your back with Iraq, really captivates not only the audience in the chamber, but he’s shooting for the American people. What he really wants to do is engage the American people tomorrow night. That’s what all presidents want to do with the state of the union address.

GWEN IFILL: David Gergen, how do you engage the American people? Do you do it with domestic priorities right up front, or do you do it with, saying hey, look at this great success I just had that I told you I was going to have?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, as with all good symphonies, you need a prelude, you need a little orchestra music right up front and I think that will be a drum roll in effect this time that will celebrate the spread of freedom. I think he’s going to not only cite Iraq but Afghanistan, as well as the Palestinians, and say, you know, the flag of freedom has been planted, and guess what, we had a lot to do with it.

I think he’ll also make the point early on that the economy is coming back. Jobs have been created here in the last few months. It’s looking much better on that front. I think we’ll have a celebratory — or they have to watch out not to be too triumphant, but I think a more celebratory upbeat kind of mood in the beginning. Then he can turn to the struggles ahead.

What he wants to do is transfer the magic from Sunday’s television pictures coming out of Iraq, which were so inspiring, to the domestic agenda. I think that’s very difficult to do in the face of Social Security. People sort of compartmentalize in their minds Iraq and Social Security, so that just because you may be pleased or inspired by Iraq does not mean you’ll change your mind about Social Security.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about that, gentlemen. You all have had your hands in different points of time on these kinds of speeches, or on these speeches. Mr. McLarty, what exactly do you do when you know that the world is watching and reading tea leaves so carefully? Do you craft every word? Do you try to find a way to sell a program, a problematic issue like Social Security, or do you go for the broad sweep?

THOMAS McLARTY: You really have to do both those, Gwen. And that’s the real challenge in the state of the union. You’re speaking frankly to multiple audiences and constituencies, including the members of the House and Senate right there in that chamber. You’re clearly speaking to the American people and indeed you’re speaking to the world.

You’re also speaking to members of your cabinet, who very much want their agency, their program mentioned in that state of the union. So you really have a tension, if you will between laying out your road map your legislative agenda in very specific terms without it becoming a laundry list.

GWEN IFILL: Well, doesn’t that idea that the row of cabinet members sitting at the edge of the seat waiting for their number to be called, doesn’t that tend toward making a speech that’s just full of a lot of stuff, most of which will never happen?

THOMAS McLARTY: Well, some of it certainly will happen,

GWEN IFILL: Some of it.

THOMAS McLARTY: But I think there is that tendency, and you can’t lose, as David and Ken know so well, the thematic, the vision. I think you also see President Bush as frankly a second-term president, a more confident president, but I don’t think he can let that walk turn into a swagger. I think he’s got to be careful there.

GWEN IFILL: Ken Duberstein, one of your jobs at the White House was working in congressional relations. Mack McLarty was just talking about the different audiences in front of the president. One of them are the people in the room. Which is more important, the folks in the room that have to implement your agenda, or people at home?

KEN DUBERSTEIN: Always the people back home, because they put the pressure on the people who are sitting in that chamber. You always go for the people first. But the key, I think, is that in this year, you had an inaugural address which was the so-called “vision thing.” Now you have a blueprint for governing. You have to lay out your major priorities.

I would think that a president who just does a laundry list misses, because then everything is a priority. So I would anticipate that President Bush, while he talks about some of the thematics, really must focus on reforming Social Security, on tax reform, and talking about a reform agenda, an opportunity for society, and how that all fits together, rather than going through every one of those Departments and saying, I took care of you, I took care of you, and I took care of you.

GWEN IFILL: Rather, David Gergen, than going through that big sweep that we saw in the inaugural address, where he was using language which was so sweeping that for the next couple days, they were backing up, saying, “we didn’t mean all that”?

DAVID GERGEN: That’s true. I do think that there is inevitable pressure to go more toward the list than toward the themes. If I anecdotally recall about 20 years ago, President Ford was going up to give his 1976 State of the Union address, and the White House we had two different drafts that were developed. The one was very thematic; one was the laundry list. The president got us in the Oval Office and took a vote; seventeen votes for the thematic speech; two votes for the laundry list.

The two votes were his speechwriter, Bob Hartman, and President Gerry Ford. Guess which speech he gave. So he gave the laundry list. Some of us who lost thought, well, maybe we’d have been better off the other way. This is the moment, this is the most important moment for George W. Bush in his second term to frame his domestic agenda make a convincing argument in favor of some of these controversial proposals — proposals, after all, he’s tried to make before that haven’t gone anywhere, and create momentum behind him, to create a public momentum, drive up the numbers on the public opinion side, because he’s going to need those numbers up on Capitol Hill.

The fact that he had — the power that he had among the members of Congress has diminished since four years ago. There is less hope and more division. So he needs to get the — rally the public behind him in this speech.

GWEN IFILL: Mack McLarty yourself, you’re the Democrat at the table here tonight. What do you say to a Republican president who has got to calm restive Republicans in Congress and elsewhere?

THOMAS McLARTY: You have to strike a balance. I’m outnumbered here– as Democrats are in Congress, I might add. But, no, I think President Bush, not unlike in the campaign, Gwen, will have to reach out to Democrats. I simply do not believe he can do Social Security reform, tax reform without a bipartisan effort. I do not believe he’ll get the support of the country in that regard.

GWEN IFILL: How does he get the support of his own party?

THOMAS McLARTY: Well, I think he’s in a strong position to do that, Gwen. I do think the devil is in the details. That will come with the legislative fighting that will certainly occur, but I think he’s in a strong position here to make his case in the proper manner, to hopefully get some of those centrist Democrats across to his side, or at least consider being there.

GWEN IFILL: Ken Duberstein, Republican, how does he speak to the Democrats?

KEN DUBERSTEIN: I think he needs to demonstrate that Pennsylvania Avenue is in fact a two-way street and look for their support.

GWEN IFILL: Why?

KEN DUBERSTEIN: He can’t just go to the red meat for the Republicans, but really has to reach out. You know, everybody’s now been talking about the Republicans being restive. I think the Republicans are far more unified than anybody in the media wants to admit. But what he needs to do is to start looking at some of those Democrats in states where he carried big and start saying, I want to work with you.

I want you to come down to the White House. I want your ideas. I want to incorporate them. What I want to do is send you a blueprint, but I don’t want to send you all the architectural details. Some of that comes from you, as well. That’s how you start, as Ronald Reagan did, in picking up some of the Democratic support that makes for a majority… a working majority in the Congress.

GWEN IFILL: David Gergen, the state of the union, just as a general document, as a working template or a blueprint, to use the term the president was using today or his staff was, is it important as a speech, a memorable speech on its own? Do we go through history saying, ah, and then there was the state of the union that Woodrow Wilson gave? Or is it part of a policy setting continuum and more useful in that setting?

DAVID GERGEN: It tends to be much more useful in the policy setting and as a political address that has a temporary effect. Rarely have states of the union been memorable. You know, as we talked about a couple weeks ago, inaugurals are rarely memorable, but they have at least the punch and the sort of rhetorical flourishes that people cite years later. It’s rare you find states of the union to be cited.

Of course, Gwen, as you know, there was a long period of time in American history when presidents did not go to the Hill. Thomas Jefferson stopped going up there he didn’t like to make speeches. And no president went back up to do an oral state of the union until Woodrow Wilson more than a century later. So these have not been typically memorable addresses. You don’t find them in the Safire anthologies, but they’re extremely important politically. I think that Ken Duberstein is on to something important about Social Security.

The president in the first term was often seen as rigid and trying to bull things through. I think if he comes up with a different approach, if he’s willing to reach out to Democrats and not say simply, “Here’s my plan, take it or leave it, and I’m not going to accept any amendments,” but rather goes and says, you know, “let’s work this through, I’ll give you my principles, and let’s see if we can work it out,” then I think he has a much better chance of getting something through. It won’t be the bill that perhaps he envisioned.

There is also though a tension here, because even as he reaches out to democrats on Social Security, his conservative base is going to be watching him like a hawk to see whether he sets forward strong support for the gay rights — the banning gay marriages constitutional amendment, to see where he stands on abortion, to see where he stands on the issue of conservative judges. So at the same time he’s reaching out to Democrats, he needs to keep his base happy. That’s an interesting balancing act.

GWEN IFILL: David Gergen, Mack McLarty, Ken Duberstein, we’ll be watching the balancing act all again tomorrow night. Thank you.