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January 26, 2011

Why an Unexceptional Speech Got an Exceptional Response

The early returns are in, and it's a landslide.

Snap polls (surveys with a small sample size taken immediately after a speech or event) almost always show a positive reaction to the State of the Union address. The reason is simple: if the President of the United States can't make a persuasive argument -- on the grandest platform in the world, with an hour of uninterrupted time -- he's doing something very wrong.

So it was no surprise that the post-State of the Union snap polls released last night and this morning showed a win for President Obama. What was surprising -- more like jaw-dropping -- was the lopsided degree of the President's win.

The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey gave Obama's speech an 84% positive response, while CBS' online poll pegged the positive response at 91%. Perhaps most encouraging for the White House, a survey of swing voters in Colorado by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner found a jump in the President's approval rating from 30% pre-speech to 56% post-speech.

These are blowout numbers. But last night's State of the Union was not a blowout speech. Yes, the President's message was well-crafted. His unfailing optimism made Republicans look sullen by comparison. He challenged Republicans on issues like health care and immigration, but maintained a bipartisan tone throughout.

But this was not a speech for the ages. It had its flat points. Except for the "win the future" tagline, there were few memorable lines or moments. Most analysts suggest that two of his big goals - reaching 80% renewable energy by 2035 and 1 million electric cars by 2015 - are probably out of reach. The world will little note nor long remember what he said last night.

Why the disconnect between an overwhelming response and a relatively unexceptional speech? The answer doesn't have much to do with what happened inside the Capitol building last night. Simply put, Americans are ready to like their president again. The pendulum is swinging back in his favor.

It's hard to feel favorable toward a president in the midst of a devastating recession. Although jobs are coming back, the stock market is strong and consumer spending is on the rise, none of this has been happening fast enough. And for the past two years, President Obama has been so careful to acknowledge the nation's economic suffering that he's struggled to paint an optimistic picture.

That's finally changing. Lately, the President has started to declare a tentative victory on the economy. Yes, there's more work to be done, he's saying, but we're through the worst of it and things are going to keep getting better.

That's exactly what the American people want to hear right now. The country is tired of doom and gloom, just as they're tired of partisan gridlock. People are ready to feel good about the future again.

The dramatically favorable response to the State of the Union is an example of the right message at the right time. The same hopeful message that carried Obama to the White House grew stale as the realities of governing in a recession set in. Now, hopefulness is fresh least until the pendulum swings once more.

This guest post was written by David Meadvin, former chief speechwriter for the U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Senate Majority Leader. He is president of Inkwell Strategies, a Washington, DC-based firm that serves the speechwriting and communications needs of leaders in the political, corporate and non-profit sectors.


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