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As marketers, we can learn a great deal about persuasion and language from the State of the Union address and the Republican rebuttal. The way the conversation unfolds, the tone of the speech, the reaction of pundits and congress all set the tone or context for how Americans will interpret all kinds of messages, from the political to those used by marketers to sell products and services.
In terms of context, it's clear that American's are tired of blame, tired of the lack of respect politicians have for their money, and a need to get American back on track. We want to accelerate our recovery and prepare the country to be successful in the future. What happened in the past shouldn't be repeated, because we're moving on. Take out the pork and replace it with ideas of substance.
When President Obama got up to the microphone, instead of telling us what we didn't do, what we should have done, he focused on the future. How we are going to create more jobs and meet the challenges of education, energy etc. Obama hit his leadership stride by the end of the speech, by taking the highroad, talking about our "Sputnik Moment" and move to renewable energy. He stayed out of the weeds and spoke to our aspirations.
As a listener it's interesting how we all grabbed onto the "Sputnik moment" and can't recall a thing about the bogged down details in the middle of the speech.
For the most part, President Obama read the mood of the country right. The country wants reconciliation, and we want our leaders to work together(or at least pretend). They even sat together for the speech. The country is ready for progress, and for a brief moment, it appeared as if congress got it. In fact, by Congress sitting in an intermingled way, President Obama became our American president instead of a Republican or Democratic President.
That is, until Congressman Paul Ryan's Republican rebuttal. Now, to give him credit, he started big.... for about 5 seconds. My expectations were that he would talk about fiscal conservatism as a way to get the country on a path for growth. He'd be glad to hear about President Obama's desire to do big things, and how Republicans want to go even further. If President Obama was planning to solve the energy crisis, Ryan was going to solve the energy crisis and more.
After rightly acknowledging Congresswoman's Gabrielle Gifford's shooting, he started out strong.....
"As Chairman of the House Budget Committee, I assure you that we want to work with the President to restrain federal spending. In one of our first acts in the new majority, House Republicans voted to cut Congress's own budget. And just today, the House voted to restore the spending discipline that Washington sorely needs. The reason is simple. A few years ago, reducing spending was important. Today, it's imperative. Here's why. We face a crushing burden of debt. The debt will soon eclipse our entire economy, and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead. On this current path, when my three children - who are now 6, 7, and 8 years old - are raising their own children, the Federal government will double in size, and so will the taxes they pay. No economy can sustain such high levels of debt and taxation. The next generation will inherit a stagnant economy and a diminished country. Frankly, it's one of my greatest concerns as a parent - and I know many of you feel the same way."
Still not particularly visionary, but nothing to disagree with. Now here's where there was some hope, Republicans and Democrats working together...
"Our debt is the product of acts by many presidents and many Congresses over many years. No one person or party is responsible for it.
There is no doubt the President came into office facing a severe fiscal and economic situation."
After this I said wow, they are really going to step up. To share responsibility (good or bad) for the spending of the past. I'm thinking, I could really like this guy......until he said...
"Unfortunately, instead of restoring the fundamentals of economic growth, he engaged in a stimulus spending spree that not only failed to deliver on its promise to create jobs, but also plunged us even deeper into debt.
The facts are clear: Since taking office, President Obama has signed into law spending increases of nearly 25% for domestic government agencies - an 84% increase when you include the failed stimulus.
All of this new government spending was sold as "investment." Yet after two years, the unemployment rate remains above 9% and government has added over $3 trillion to our debt.
Then the President and his party made matters even worse, by creating a new open-ended health care entitlement.
A swing and a miss. We went from President Obama and his vision for a great America to Paul Ryan giving us a history lesson on past mistakes. Instead of telling us of what is possible (how about growing GDP so that tax rates naturally rise), he told us what we will lose. His speech was about the bad Democrats and how Republicans were going to undo what they did....a message exactly contrary to what we were hoping to hear.
I"m not trying to espouse the Democratic or Republican agenda or point of view. Simply to point out that context drives acceptance and persuasion. Here, the context was achievement and fatigue with blame. Into that context Congressman Ryan failed to deliver. He failed to anticipated what his audience was willing to accept. His failure is the failure of the Republican party (check out GOP.com, the Republican National Committee website, anyone want to buy a "I Fired Pelosi" T-shirt).
What does the future hold for Paul Ryan? I bet that instead of being invited to the next Tea Party, he'll be sitting on the sidelines, wondering why the next Reagan of his party passed him by.