How Policy is Made in the State of the Union Address

For the latest episode of the Political Wire podcast, we spoke to speechwriters from the last three administrations about how the president’s State of the Union address comes together.

White House policy aides see the speech — often the president’s biggest of the year — as a huge opportunity to push their ideas.

As President George W. Bush’s speechwriter David Frum told us, “Every part of the government is struggling to get its ideas into the presidential address. When the president says something, it becomes policy.”

Michael Waldman says that President Bill Clinton started the process by consulting “outside advisers and thinkers. We would before Christmas compile a thick book of readings for him. He would get memos and advice and drafts from Cabinet members and there would be an ongoing process where the policy staff and policy aides were developing the initiatives that would go into the speech.”

He added: “We would produce draft after draft – it would go up through 10, 15, 20 drafts… And as he was rehearsing at the podium, he would keep writing. So that by the time he delivered it, he knew every inch of his government and every particle of the policies he was putting forward.”

For President Obama, Jon Favreau says the process actually starts “sometime around Thanksgiving. Usually we meet with the President and his top policy and senior advisers and talk about themes for the State of the Union: ‘What is the theme going to be this year?’ … And then what are the big policy initiatives the President is interested in pursuing. From there, all the policy councils in the White House get together and they reach out to the agencies and they come up with a list of various policies and initiatives that the President might pursue in the State of the Union.”

It’s a fascinating process. Listen to the interviews here:

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