White House

Obama's Poetry and Prose

Looking for that old oratorical magic in a final State of the Union speech.

It's been real.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

"You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose," the late Mario Cuomo was fond of saying.

Rarely has that contrast been as vivid as with President Barack Obama as he prepares to deliver his final State of the Union address Tuesday night. In recent years there have been few soaring moments of Obama rhetoric, but lots of government prose.

It makes a striking contrast from the politician who burst onto the national scene as an orator, starting with a memorable keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention.

"The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states -- red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats," proclaimed the young legislator from Illinois, then just a candidate for the U.S. Senate. "We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states."

There were strong moments in his presidential run; he was a far more inspirational candidate than his rivals, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, though both questioned whether he elevated style over substance.

That's no longer the rap, even from critics who don't like the substance. It's also rather natural. "Campaigns lend themselves to eloquent speeches," notes Jennifer Mercieca," a professor at Texas A&M University specializing in the history of American presidential discourse. "The act of governing requires a more thematic and substantive approach."

The White House has promised a thematic State of the Union speech rather than the customary laundry list of legislative proposals. Aides have said the president will focus on major challenges and opportunities facing America.

For all Obama's oratorical talent, his presidential speeches have been short on the memorable lines that characterized those by predecessors like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Even his supporters have sometimes urged him to lead with more emotion, and he has said that he regrets the loss of "some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are."

To be sure, there have been moments of inspiring oratory, most recently when he marked the 50th anniversary last year of civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, and in his eulogy last June for the black South Carolina pastor Clementa Pinckney, slain in his own church by a white gunman. He even sang "Amazing Grace."

Don't expect any songs Tuesday night. Professor Mercieca, examining the final State of the Union speeches of the past three two-term Presidents -- Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, found they all used their final State of the Union addresses to frame the legacy and historical context of their Presidency.

Obama will do likewise, and there may be a little bit of poetry too. "The nation," Mercieca said, "could use that right now."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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