By JOSH GERSTEIN
1/21/11 4:35 AM EST
As President Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter from 1995 to 1999, Michael Waldman had a unique view of the challenges and opportunities the State of the Union address presents for a president. He was there to help craft the speech at low points of the Clinton presidency — the aftermath of the 1994 election and the beginnings of the Monica Lewinsky scandal — as well as after Clinton’s triumphant reelection to a second term. In a conversation with POLITICO White House reporter Josh Gerstein, Waldman had some advice for President Barack Obama on what he should say about the challenges now facing his presidency, including the nation’s continuing economic problems, a newly divided Congress and the divisive aftermath of the Tucson, Ariz., shootings. Waldman, currently director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, remains a student of presidential speechmaking. He recently published an updated collection of presidential addresses, “My Fellow Americans,” which includes two speeches by Obama: his campaign speech on race in March 2008 and a speech delivered to the House Republican Conference in March 2010.
The writing of Obama’s speech was well under way at the time of the Tucson shootings. Should he tear up the address he was planning to give and put the spotlight instead on the nation’s response to the tragedy?
I don’t think this would or should cause him to rewrite the speech or give a different speech. People expect a State of the Union speech to be about the broad business of the country. This is not a eulogy. This is the State of the Union. … There’s an ongoing crisis in long-term joblessness, and that will and should be the focus.