Ask any speechwriter who has ever spent hundreds of hours crafting a State of the Union address, and they will tell you it is one of the worst speeches a president gives during the year.
White House speechwriters have been known to hide out in their offices with fellow aides guarding the door.
The pressure to include a laundry list of accomplishments and policy proposals while clearly (but subtly) contrasting the president’s agenda with the agenda of the opposing political party can be a true wordsmithing challenge.
White House speechwriters have been known to hide out in their offices with fellow aides guarding the door to prevent more pitches from Cabinet members, elected officials and every person in Washington who wants to hear their priority issues name-checked. Even so, the final speech can easily fall into the trap of sounding like a hodgepodge of unrelated topics connected only by awkward transitional sentences.
And then there is the explosion of information sources in this country. Most Americans are no longer crowding around their sets at 9 p.m. waiting eagerly to watch a speech from start to finish.
So is there even a point to this tradition?
Because despite the State of the Union’s flaws, it remains the best chance any president has to tell the American people en masse what he has been working on and what he wants to do moving forward.
It is also an opportunity to reset the conversation, the narrative and the focus of the public.
President Joe Biden will deliver his second State of the Union address on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET. Follow msnbc.com/sotu for live updates and analysis from experts and insiders.
Back in the winter of 1999, President Bill Clinton was in the middle of an impeachment inquiry. Republicans felt he should not deliver a State of the Union address — and they were not alone. Even some Democrats were calling on him to delay the speech. But he did it anyway. Clinton did not talk about the scandal hanging over his head. Instead, he delivered a soaring (and lengthy) speech about the economy. And he managed to get a version of the reset he so desperately needed.
President Barack Obama was not mired in scandal in January 2011. But he was leading a party that had lost 63 seats in the House of Representatives. To quote my former boss, he had been “shellacked.” He used his speech to lay out a forward-looking vision for investing in the American workforce — proposals that Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on.
My other former boss, Joe Biden, is navigating the drip drip dripping of FBI classified document searches. And more attention is paid to a Chinese balloon than to his economic agenda. At the same time, he is gearing up for his re-election bid, despite an approval rating still hovering in the low 40s. This speech could not come at a better time.
But do not expect Biden to speak about classified materials or political campaigns. I would be surprised if he mentions the word “documents” or former President Donald Trump in the speech. This is his moment to be presidential, not political.
Ideally, he does not simply list out his wins. That would be a missed opportunity. Instead, he must tell a story that is bigger than data points and bills passed. He should explain why he is the guy fighting for the people watching at home. And why, despite the rise in mass shootings and police brutality, and despite the threats to fundamental rights like access to an abortion, America is a still a place of great possibility.
Ideally, he does not simply list out his wins. That would be a missed opportunity.
This is Biden’s chance to describe who we can be: How we can still get things done by working together. And why we must continue standing up for democracy at home and abroad.
The speechwriters are till feverishly finalizing the language Biden will deliver. I can tell you from experience that no speech is final until it comes out of his mouth. But the best thing this president can do is something he actually does quite well. We need a storyteller-in-chief tonight. And that will give him the reset he needs.