After a year of intense contention in Washington, Obama appealed to the public by emphasizing that they were the hero of his State of the Union address, not him and not Congress. The White House sought to further empower the American people through open information by providing its effective “second-screen experience” as a companion to the president’s oral remarks.
Obama is the first president to use a second-screen experience, which was gutsy, since some communications strategists may be wary of diverting attention from the speech and sharing the stage. Obama began his speech by talking about specific kinds of Americans (teachers, doctors, auto-workers), while the second-screen showed images of real people from both stock photography and user-generated photos. These visuals drove home his point that the people who depend on their government are part of our tight-knit, intimate American family and supported statements like, “the American people make us strong.”
The first half of his speech laid out the “what is” state of the nation, covering a wide variety of topics, including educational and job opportunities, energy, immigration, and research and development. The combination of statistics in his oral remarks and those shown on the second screen made his list of accomplishments more memorable by giving the viewer information via two senses—sight as well as sound. One issue, though, was that the slides on the second screen didn’t always match up with the information in his speech. During his introductory remarks about the American people, he addressed people of specific genders, which didn’t match up with the people pictured in the photos. And when he discussed current statistics and economic realities, the second-screen slide information sometimes didn’t match what he was talking about directly. Some slides served as annotations or footnotes rather than supporting material, which wasn’t immediately clear. There was also a slide with spelling and grammar errors that distracted the viewers’ attention.
Throughout the speech, Obama kept his content on a very practical, even casual level. Even in the “what could be” parts of his speech, when he talked about how this year could be one of action and accomplishment, he refrained from making the same kind of high-level aspirations he described when he first took office. Instead, he gave specific calls to, “give America a raise” and reinstate unemployment insurance and the Earned Income Tax Credit. He did get more fired up when he talked about his goals to get every American student a chance to go to college, a cause he and Michelle are clearly genuinely passionate about.
He was also carefully practical when he spoke about foreign relations, particularly about negotiating with Iran: “These negotiations will be difficult. They may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and the mistrust between our nations cannot be wished away.” To encourage the audience to believe in his plan, he appealed to the analytical brain, emphasizing that, “these negotiations do not rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb.”
When speaking to Congressional members, he argued more from the heart. When he referred to the government shutdown last fall, he said the government was, “not doing right by the American people,” and that, “As President, I’m committed to making Washington work better and rebuilding the trust of the people who sent us here. I believe most of you are, too.” The words “most of you” also allowed Obama to make a subtle, yet somber, jab at his opponents.
Obama didn’t spend much of his time moving his opponents towards his vision or creating common ground with them—except for one moment. When he was talking about rising above political infighting and giving every American the opportunity to succeed, he called out a few examples of current leaders who started out life in humble circumstances:
“…there are millions of Americans outside Washington who are tired of stale political arguments, and are moving this country forward. They believe, and I believe, that here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams. That’s what drew our forebears here. It’s how the daughter of a factory worker is CEO of America’s largest automaker; how the son of a barkeeper is Speaker of the House; how the son of a single mom can be President of the greatest nation on Earth.”
Juxtaposing two men at political odds (John Boehner and President Obama) showed that they are essentially united by common humble beginnings, and it sent a powerful if quiet message to Obama’s opponents in Congress. Those watching on the second screen got to see old family photos of Boehner and Obama as children, which made the moment even more engaging.
Obama also tugged on the heartstrings of his viewers with a few well-chosen anecdotes illustrating how his policies help everyday Americans or how the everyday man or woman possesses enormous grit and determination. Two anecdotes were particularly great examples. The first was about Amanda Shelley, the woman who needed emergency surgery days after finally getting health insurance under the Affordable Healthcare Act. The most memorable anecdote was about Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, who served 10 separate deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan before severely wounded by a roadside bomb. Cory’s journey back from from paralysis, and his perseverance to regain his ability to speak, stand, and walk was very moving.
President Obama—and his speechwriters—had a tough job last night in crafting a second term State of the Union speech after a rocky year for everyone in Washington. While the State of the Union showed more examples of how President Obama’s speaking has evolved to be more practical, I hope he doesn’t lose touch with the “what could be” thinking that made him such a refreshingly compelling speaker in the first place.