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Former speechwriters analyze State of the Union

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WASHINGTON - Four former speechwriters leveled criticism and praise, along partisan lines, of President Barack Obama’s third State of the Union.

“This was Obama’s best State of the Union,” Robert Lehrman, former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, said in an email. “The way he used troops returning to Andrews Air Force Base, then returned to the Navy Seals at the end – using them as a metaphor to inspire people? That was both innovative and effective.”

John McConnell, former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, felt that Obama skirted some of the more pressing issues of recent weeks.

“A half trillion dollars in defense cuts deserved more than a sentence in the speech,” McConnell said. “But it’s not something that the president wants to dwell on and I can’t say I’m surprised the president didn’t elaborate.”

“He continued the same sort of rhetoric from earlier speeches, with the fair shake, fair shot rhetoric,” Vinca LaFleur, former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, said. “I thought it was quite strong.”

One of the criticisms that has been leveled by conservative commentators, including a video by the Republican National Committee, was that a significant amount of Obama’s rhetoric was very similar to previous State of the Unions. That criticism was echoed by Chriss Winston, former chief speechwriter to President George H.W. Bush.

“It was interesting from a speechwriter’s perspective, all of the repetition,” Winston said. “It’s one thing to use a phrase that’s become synonymous with a certain policy, but to really use some of the same language again and again, was interesting to me.”

Winston went further and said the repetition amounted to a “double down” by the president on “the policy initiatives of the last three years rather than seek any new direction.”

Such criticisms, however, are “ridiculous and a sort of fabricated critique,” LaFleur said. “I don’t think it is a sign of weak leadership to hold fast to your principles.”

LaFleur was quick to point out that such arguments would likely have little impact in the context of the campaign.

“For the people who already hate the president, it will reinforce that,” LaFleur said. “It won’t persuade an undecided about his rhetoric or his record.”

But even with those criticisms, Lehrman pointed to the policy initiatives that Obama raised during the State of the Union.

“I counted 37 specific proposals where he wants legislation,” Lehrman said in an email.  “Whenever he says things like, ‘Let’s pass an agenda that helps them succeed’ or ‘pass the payroll tax right away,’ he’s asking to see specific bills on his desk.”

But all four of the speechwriters agreed that the themes Obama used in the State of the Union would reappear during the coming 2012 election campaign.

“It was clearly an election year speech, and I think that it framed the issues in the way that the president is going to be presenting them the rest of the year,” McConnell said.

“He set out very strongly his perspective on a variety of issues,” LaFleur said. “Everybody agrees we need job creation but on how you do that, and how you reduce the deficit, he laid out very clearly where he stands on those issues."

Reach reporter Frank Bumb at bumbf@shns.com or 202-326-9871. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.

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