January 11, 2007

Expert: State of the Union address likely to emphasize what unites us

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — When President Bush delivers his State of the Union address on Jan. 23, he's likely to focus not on the contentious issues that are dividing the country, but on the values Americans share, a Purdue University expert says.

"With the Iraq war as unpopular as ever and with a Congress now controlled by Democrats, President Bush would be wise to return to the message he came to Washington with — to be a uniter, not a divider," says Buddy Howell, a visiting instructor in the Department of Communication who studies political communication and specializes in the study of presidential rhetoric.

"With the exception of the State of the Union he delivered in January 2002 just after 9/11, this probably will be the most important State of the Union address of his presidency because of the crucial issues and divisive atmosphere facing the country."

Howell says the top two issues Bush likely will address are the war in Iraq and how both parties can work together in the first Congress controlled by Democrats in 12 years.

"The task for President Bush will be to craft a message with the points he wants to make and still frame it within the larger issue of how he sees the nation's identity, mission and destiny," he says. "The language he uses and the atmosphere he creates will be key to this."

Howell says presidents such as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were especially skilled in shaping that type of message.

"In 1982 President Reagan had as his guest in the gallery Lenny Skutnik, a man who had dramatically rescued a passenger following a plane crash in the Potomac River two weeks earlier. In Reagan's speech, he mentioned Skutnik as embodying 'the spirit of American heroism at its finest.'

"If President Bush can evoke this same kind of spirit, it will go a long way toward boosting the mood of the nation and bringing all sides together."

Howell says the annual State of the Union address is not mandated by the Constitution, which just requires that the president update Congress "from time to time."

"The annual State of the Union address to the Congress is really a modern invention that presidents since Woodrow Wilson have utilized not just to rattle off a laundry list of accomplishments and goals, but also to speak over the Congress to the American people in an effort to build popular support for the president's policies. In doing so, presidents often use transcendent language.

"Presidents attempt to discuss the mundane aspects of domestic policy and the sometimes controversial aspects of foreign policy in symbolic, transcendent terms that appeal to values embraced by the majority of Americans," he says.

Howell says emphasizing the successes of the past year and not becoming mired in the details would be Bush's best strategy.

"It's vital for President Bush to convey that his policies are part of a larger mission and part of the values that all Americans share. If he can speak in these terms, his address will be seen as a success."

Writer: Kim Medaris, (765) 494-6998, kmedaris@purdue.edu

Source: Buddy Howell, (765) 494-7781, bhowell@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


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