Governor Rick Snyder delivered his third State of the State address this past Wednesday; the annual ritual when governors defend what they’ve done over the past 12 months and lay out their vision for the coming year. It’s a night for official Lansing to step out. Some people actually buy new clothes for it. There are receptions and parties afterward, which goes largely unseen by the public, who just tune in for the speech and opposition response. That is, of course, if they tune it at all.
The State of the State speech – and, nationally, the State of the Union address – is a challenge: it’s long. It’s a laundry list of policy and wonky, political-speak. It’s hard to keep people’s attention. And, we’re not just talking the TV or radio audience. It’s hard to sometimes even keep the attention of the people in the House chamber where the Governor delivers the speech.
In order to try and spice things up a bit this year, Governor Snyder literally took it down a level. He delivered his address from the clerk’s perch on the dais of the state House of Representatives instead of from higher-up where the state House Speaker presides over the session. Snyder wanted to do it standing on the floor of the House, walking around with a wireless headset. No notes. Very Silicon Valley, tech company, CEO style.
So, beyond the pomp and circumstance of the night, political watchers often wonder: just how important IS this speech? Does it really change minds, change the “Lansing-agenda”? Of course, the Governor has the bully pulpit, the moment a chief executive is really able to command attention. But, it can be hard to get people worked up. In the 2005 State of the State address, then-Governor Jennifer Granholm was trying to establish a common bond with Republicans by talking tax cuts, bragging about her administration’s record. So, she delivered this line, “We have by far the lowest business and income tax rates we have had in over three decades. And it’s about to get even more competitive.” And, there was basically a silence after this line. A silence that prompted Granholm to continue, “Come on. You guys can applaud that.”
Governor Snyder encountered something similar Wednesday night, when he made his plea for bipartisanship after last month's brutal partisan battles in lame-duck. “I appreciate that people had different perspectives on issues and what I’m saying is, I’m hoping we can find common ground where we can work together and I hope all of you join me in doing the same thing,” Snyder said. There was applause after that line, but none of the clapping came from the Democratic side of the aisle.
This made us think of a piece that journalist Ezra Klein wrote in The New Yorker last March. Klein talks about the conventional wisdom that one of the greatest powers of a chief executive is the ability to deliver a message directly to the people, think FDR’s Fireside Chats or the Great Communicator Ronald Reagan. And, this was the thinking for decades: that when a chief executive wants to persuade or change the course of events, that he, or she, uses speeches, interviews and events to bend public thinking in a new direction.
Governor Snyder is trying to do that now with revenue for roads and he tried to do it with the new bridge between Detroit and Canada. President Obama is trying to do this now with guns. But, Klein says the data doesn’t support the idea, that a president’s ability to persuade isn’t all that powerful. He looks to a Gallup poll that goes all the way back to 1978 that shows State of the Union addresses don’t actually change things that much; that they don’t really move people in one direction or another.
So, what’s a President, or Governor to do? One answer: relationships. Chief executives can foster close ties with legislators whose support they need to move their plans along. And, they can listen. Find out what moves citizens and lawmakers. In the case of Governor Snyder, that means finding out why these people came to Lansing in the first place. Find ways to help everyone win in what’s really a zero sum game – because success is ultimately measured at election time... when someone has to lose. And that’s everyone’s bottom line. When your business is politics.